Sixty-two year old Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, "North Country") is merely going through the motions teaching college economics and researching a book. He is passionate about learning classical piano, but seems to have no inborn ability for it. He is roused out of his Connecticut routine by a superior who insists he travel to New York City to deliver a paper at an economics conference and when he enters the apartment he keeps there, becomes "The Visitor."
Laura's Review: A-
Writer/director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent") returns with another tale of two men and a woman from vastly different walks of life who form a support group around one of their homes and, if anything, "The Visitor" is an even better film, something that feels more derived from real life than independent quirkiness. Character actor Richard Jenkins gives a performance that is at once restrained and speaks volumes, a breakthrough to leading man status after decades of supporting roles. Walter seems completely cut off from life, a misanthrope or at least one in the making. Through the slightly comical first lesson with his sixth try at a piano teacher (Marian Seldes, "Leatherheads"), we learn his wife was a pianist, McCarthy's economic fleshing out of Vale giving us both a reason for his solitude and his attempt to connect with an instrument that eludes him. It is notable that it is a woman's touch that alerts him to something odd about the city apartment he hasn't been too in a while. A folded up craft table near the front door and, more tellingly, a vase of fresh flowers in the living room. Calling out 'hello, hello?' he gets no reply, but spies a light from beneath a door. Upon opening it, he's astonished to find a young black woman in his bathtub. She is more than astonished - she's terrified. A young man rushes in to protect her but the situation is quickly defused by his own nature and Walter's protestations of harmful intent. Syrian Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman, "American Dreamz") and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) are not squatters, but the victims of a rental scam and when it becomes apparent they have nowhere to go, Walter calls them back in from the street. Zainab, who seems as closed in as Vale, dances around the stranger, but an unlikely friendship sprouts between the affable Tarek and Walter when Tarek finds him trying his hands at Tarek's African drum. Soon Walter is lunching perched near Central Park bucket thumpers and attending jazz clubs to hear Tarek perform, but after his first foray into a public drumming performance, Tarek is nabbed by subway police who accuse him of jumping a turnstyle. He didn't, but his status as an illegal is exposed and he's thrown into a deportation center. A distraught Zainab is no longer comfortable accepting Walter's hospitality and moves in with a relative in the Bronx, but another visitor takes her place. Mouna Khalil (Hiam Abbass, "Paradise Now," "Munich") arrives from Michigan when she cannot get a hold of her son after five days, another stranger who becomes anything but after entering Walter's world. This lovely, touching story never takes the expected path. McCarthy's central themes, the rejuvenating power of new life experience and the post 9/11 inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, are supported by two unique romances (Tarek and Zainab's, later Walter and Mouna's) and an investigation into the healing and expressive power of music. Jenkins plays Vale as a man whose eyes are gradually opened, whose quiet seeming withdrawal is cover for keen observation and new found appreciation. He notices the flowers brought by two different woman just as one can sense the actor experiencing cooking of two different backgrounds. He's drawn to Tarek's easy openness then infuriated by his own feeling of helplessness when his new friend is imprisoned ('He has a life!' he rails to a stoic guard). Tarek and Zainab are beautifully cast, with Sleiman's open ease quickly installing trust in his character. Newcomer Gurira makes Zainab initially suspicious, noble and proud. As a couple, they are an amusing but well matched study in opposites. Hiam Abbass creates a softly melancholy Mouna who can still exhibit the thrill of a young girl at a gift and the tenderness between herself and Jenkins is touching. Amir Arison is effective as a crisp immigration attorney and Laith Nakli opens a door for Walter as an Egyptian coffee shop owner attracted to Mouna. Deborah Rush stands in for the friendly but ignorant American as a customer of Zainab's who equates South Africa with Senegal. After establishing Walter's mundane existence, the production visits a multitude of small worlds from the camp-like fair where Zainab sells her handmade jewelry daily and the musical enclaves of Central Park to the concrete, windowless block that is United Correctional Corporation and the depressed surroundings which mirror its occupants spirits. The Staten Island Ferry is the ideal visual counterpart of the immigrant experience. Walter's comfortable Connecticut Colonial is offset by his sparer, urban apartment. A Queens coffee shop is dreary reality where a Manhattan restaurant is a place of excitement following a "Phantom of the Opera" performance. "The Visitor" is the embodiment of the sentiment that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. McCarthy leaves us with a stunning last shot - Walter, now adept on the djembe, plays on a subway platform as an incoming train partially obscures him. The man who began as a passionless professor is left an inner city street musician, protesting violently via his drum.