Much of the art of the writer-director and cast of 'The Visitor' resides in the fact that nobody gets in the way of the important story the film tells, which is essentially a parable. What might happen, it seems to ask, if average white middle-class Americans became truly sensitive to the horrific plight of many foreigners in this county? The strength of The Visitor' is that the strong feelings it awakens lead to some serious thoughts.
Our average guy is an intelligent professional who's tellingly cut off from the rest of the world, even what's immediately around him. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed professor like Dennis Quaid's character in the much inferior 'Smart People'--not an egocentric bore like the latter, however, but an essentially decent person. Walter is impeccably dressed, polite to everyone, but reserved and distant. Walter, as he admits later, is just "pretending." He's dried up; has ceased to be fully alive. He lives alone in Connecticut where he teaches, and is detached toward students and colleagues alike. Remarkably, since he still seems to have a reputation, he has not revised his course on global economics for fifteen years. He's published books and claims he's finishing another but isn't really working on anything. He dabbles with piano lessons, in honor of his late wife, a celebrated pianist, but that isn't going anywhere; he keeps firing teachers.
Walter has recently agreed to be listed as co-author of a paper another teacher wrote. When the real author can't read the paper at an NYU conference, he has to go. That takes him back to a New York apartment he's left unoccupied for some time--and when he enters it and discovers its been illegally rented to a young Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend, his life is changed.
The uninvited occupants are Tarik Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer who's in a small jazz band and also likes to jam in the park, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who makes original jewelry she sells on the street. They immediately gather their possessions to move out, but Walter takes pity on them and lets them stay provisionally. Obviously Walter could use some excitement. The couple are focused, energetic, alive, radiant with hope--all Walter has ceased to be. Tarik is extremely outgoing, warm, friendly to Walter. His drumming immediately engages Walter and before long the uptight professor is trying his hand at it. Zainab however is cautious and fearful. For good reason, as it turns out, since neither she nor Tarik is in this country legally.
What happens later is heart-wrenching not only for the young couple but for Walter, and perhaps for viewers, some of whom may identify with the American professor, others with the two outsiders, who have so much to offer yet aren't wanted here. Walter becomes deeply involved, to the extent of a burgeoning relationship with Tarik's widowed mother Mouna (Hiam Abbas), and he does the best he can, but he ends up angry and helpless.
The US has only 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners and the highest incarceration rate of any country. This is part of the story told here, because many would-be immigrants in the US are in long-term open-ended detention, another scandal and horror perpetrated in America of which 'The Visitor' provides a haunting, vivid glimpse. The film conveys a clear sense of the insensitivity and blind arbitrariness of a US immigration system that grinds up lives rapidly and heedlessly behind unmarked walls.
Todd McCarthy's first film, 'The Station Agent,' was an accomplished and well-received indie artifact, quirky and cute. It was pitch-perfect in its way, but a little fey. This time he's done something completely different: 'The Visitor' by clear implication takes a pretty strong, if generalized, stand on immigration issues; speaks out not for an oddball few but for multitudes of ordinary people, and does so forcefully. Yet it's not preachy. Its narrative follows a course that's seemingly obvious but keeps grabbing you just the same.
There are many immigration stories, often lengthy, intricate, and epic. This one has the simplicity and occasional sketchiness of a short story. There is admirable restraint in that. What's also significantly different from many citizenship sagas is the way 'The Visitor' draws an American of privilege into the picture as more than a mere observer. This has a kind of Brechtian effect for the American viewer. This isn't "us." But suppose it were "us"? It was"us"--was our ancestors, our parents or grandparents. How many degrees of separation are we hiding behind?
One main way the film avoids interfering with its story is that the experienced Richard Jenkins and the three other principal actors, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbas, and Danai Jekesai Gurira never overdo or underplay. They just seem like they're being themselves, which is an actor's triumph but also a director's. And McCarthy is also the writer. The whole film is an admirable illustration of the maxim Less is more. McCarthy and his cast make it all look easy--and that's not easy.
Lonely widower Professor Walter Vale has a boring life in Connecticut. He teaches only one class at the local college and is trying to learn how to play the piano, despite lacking the necessary musical talent. Walter is assigned to attend a conference about Global Policy and Development at New York University and give a lecture about a paper he co-authored. When he arrives at his New York apartment, he finds Tarek Khalil, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor, living there. He sympathizes with the illegal immigrants' situation and invites the couple to stay with him. Tarek invites him to go to his gig at Jules Live Jazz. Walter is fascinated with his African drum and Tarek offers to teach Walter how to play it. However, after an incident in the subway, Tarek is arrested and sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. Walter has just hired a lawyer to defend Tarek when, out of the blue, Tarek's mother Mouna arrives at the apartment from Michigan. He invites her to stay in Tarek's room, and while trying to get Tarek released, Walter and Mouna get close to each other and he finds reasons to feel life can be exciting and worth living again.
October 07, 2022 at 07:28 PM