There is a moment in Tom McCarthy’s touching new movie when an aging college professor sits in an illegal immigrant detention facility, drumming on the desk in front of him to lift the spirits of a captive man. Until this moment, as a crude painting of the Twin Towers looms on the wall behind the professor, the film’s simplistic title, The Visitor, seemed to speak of the Syrian musician arrested for improper documentation. Despite the fact that the film hones in on and gives a human face to the immigration issue dividing our country right now, it is also the story of how Walter Vale, deftly played by Richard Jenkins in his first leading role, learns to feel again.
Much like McCarthy’s own The Station Agent, The Visitor focuses on a character in spiritual distress. It is established early that Walter, reeling from his wife’s death and plagued by ennui, is not happy with his current life teaching at a Connecticut college. Walter refuses to accept late work from students, ‘co-authors’ articles by merely placing his name on the work, and says he's writing a book that has suspiciously never materialized. Similar to Agent’s Peter Dinklage, it takes a trip (this time to New York City) to jar Walter out of his languor.
Forced by the college to make a presentation in Manhattan, Walter finds his long-vacant Manhattan apartment occupied by Syrian musician Tarek Khalil (the heartbreaking Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese artist girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). Once the initial shock and suspicion wears off, Walter invites the pair to remain in the apartment with him, where Tarek teaches him how to play the drum and begins the process of stripping away the walls Walter had built around his heart.
McCarthy does not only present a simple tale of a hardened man making friends and finding himself again. That would be too easy. Instead, he infuses the story with a political statement about our attitudes toward foreigners, especially those with dark skin and Arabic names, that have so radically changed since 9/11. When Tarek is stopped for supposedly jumping a subway turnstile and arrested, McCarthy aims to skewer the inequalities and misguided policy of our nation’s immigration services.
In an age of Guantanamo, water boarding, and Lou Dobbs, the issues surrounding aliens in the United States will be one of the hotbed issues for the upcoming election. Making the ‘others,’ the ‘visitors,’ out to be human beings is a noble feat. It is a shame that McCarthy is a little too ham-fisted in his attempts. As the angelic Tarek teaches Walter to drum and share himself, it is impossible to think of him as anything but a martyr for McCarthy’s crusade. The requisite images of the Twin Towers and Ellis Island are dutifully included, just to make sure you’re paying attention.
But there also poignant moments, subtle touches that are much more powerful than the Statue of Liberty. As Walter stands outside the detention facility where Tarek is held in Queens, the word ‘corporation’ stands out on the marquee. Are private companies now responsible for holding prisoners? Are jails run by white-collared white men seeking profit? And when a clueless patron, upon finding out about Zainab’s Sengalese heritage, immediately reminisces about a trip to Cape Town, one can’t help but remember when George W. Bush referred to the African continent as one nation. It is not only our country’s refusal to shelter immigrants, but also our ethnocentricity McCarthy is challenging here.
Anchoring the film is Jenkins’ performance as Walter. Best known as the ghostly father in Six Feet Under, Jenkins uses his craggy face and sad posture to fully inhabit Walter’s gloom. As the film progresses and Walter becomes closer to Tarek and ultimately Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), we watch as his features soften. When Tarek is finally deported to Syria, Walter and Mouna hold each other in bed, a lived-in couple shielding one another from helplessness and loss.
Though the film may oversimplify the issues, the real pleasure is watching Walter Vale come back to life. The final image is of Walter fulfilling Tarek’s dream of busking on a subway platform, the rhythm of the oncoming train amplifying and drowning out the righteous indignation that he feels at both the government and the wasted years he had spent as a visitor to his own life.