Movie Review: The Visitor (2008)

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor
Photo: Overture Films

Writer/director Tom McCarthy has found success in banality, by working magic into his stories and treating them as living organisms rather than just movies. Five years ago he gave us The Station Agent a fantastic little film that didn’t receive its due when released despite a large amount of critical acclaim. With The Visitor McCarthy has seemingly plucked a character that would have easily fit into The Station Agent and given him his own film. While the storyline is as commonplace as the one used in The Station Agent, it is McCarthy’s ability to tweak it just enough that keeps you watching.

The Visitor centers on Walter (Richard Jenkins), a college professor you immediately recognize as someone who is bored with his job and his life. When told he will have to head to New York to present a paper he co-authored he just says, “I can’t do it,” not because he couldn’t do it, and not even really because he didn’t want to do it as much as it seems he doesn’t want to do anything. An even more accurate description would be to say he doesn’t know what he wants to do, he just knows what he doesn’t want to do. As with all things work related, we do them no matter how much we don’t want to do them and Walter follows suit.

On his arrival at his little used apartment in New York he finds a young immigrant couple living there due to a real estate scam. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is musician from Syria and Zainab (Danai Gurira) is from Senegal and they have been renting the apartment without permission and seeing how Walter is a kind, and equally lonely, man he invites the two to stay with him. Tarek and Walter form an unlikely relationship through a passion for music and Walter’s new found interest in learning the African drums after seeing Tarek play at a jazz club. The drumming offers Walter a release and we begin to see him smile for the first time, but it quickly fades as Tarek is caught by the police as an undocumented citizen, detained and threatened with deportation.

Walter’s life has begun to find meaning again and his friendship with Tarek is strengthened by his absence and the connection the two formed. The story is highly clichéd and as it played out my mind was telling me this is just another film like all the others, but I couldn’t help but realize from that moment on my emotional involvement was kept at the tipping point for the rest of the feature. Upon the arrival of Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), the film finds its true stride and it is impossible not to love it.

The Visitor is a beautiful story of family, friendship and the resilience of them both in the face of insurmountable odds. The story is as clichéd as the words I use to describe it, but there is an added effort and care in telling the story appropriately and ignoring the fluff that makes it more than just a stereotype. There are moments where the film actually benefits from your expectancy. It counts on your emotional involvement to add a more powerful punch to its outcome, and it works.

Jenkins delivers a fantastic performance deserving of praise. He runs the gamut when it comes to Walter, presenting him as shy, proud, anti-social, kind and caring. His visits to Tarek in detention are especially telling as he looks away while placing letters from Zainab and Mouna on the glass for him to read. His interaction with Mouna is just about as truthful as you can get and Abbass is such a stunning actress you can’t take your eyes off of her and her performance simply adds to her beauty.

The Visitor is cliché and telegraphed but your heart will be on your sleeve as you watch. This film taps into that part of you that knows right from wrong and you are inspired by Walter and his sense of responsibility for someone that needs his help in a time of need. You cheer for him along the way, all the while not sure if everything will work out like you want it to.