The Visitor is a wonderful human story, a beautifully written, directed and acted film of rare grace that just might renew your faith in life--and movies.
Like one of the week's other new releases, the uneven Smart People (ironically from the same producer Michael London), The Visitor also deals with a bored, widowed Eastern college professor who finds a path to renew his soul through an unexpected relationship. The similarities stop there, however, as this simple but powerful movie gets it all right. The set up has the professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), travelling from his home in Connecticut to New York City for a conference. When he enters his rarely used apartment, he is shocked to discover a young couple living there. Backing off his initial reaction to kick them out he agrees to let the pair stay as both are well-meaning, illegal immigrants (the man is from Syria, the girlfriend from Senegal), who unknowingly rented the apartment from an unscrupulous third party. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a musician, who plays a drum called the Djemba, while Zainab (Danai Gurira) sells her handmade jewelry at street fairs. A bond develops between all three until things turn tragic, and Tarek is unfairly detained and threatened with deportation over a technicality. When Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) learns of this, she travels from Michigan and teams up with Walter to try and win Tarek his freedom before it's too late.
For 60-year-old Richard Jenkins--a veteran journeyman actor best known as the father in the first season of Six Feet Under and several memorable supporting film roles--The Visitor represents his first significant leading role. He runs with it, taking Walter on a journey from indifference to humanity to rebirth. He's alternately funny, serious, angry, driven, emotional and compassionate. It's early in the year, but it's hard to imagine come awards time there will be five better male performances. He's marvelous, and his own mastery of the Djemba is just one of the film's many memorable moments. The rest of the cast will be unknown to most American audiences but are no less extraordinary. Sleiman and Gurira totally capture the loving relationship of this immigrant couple caught up trying to quietly live and work in a fear driven post 9/11 America. Special mention should go to Israeli Palestinian star Hiam Abbass, who breaks our hearts as Tarek's fiercely determined, guilt-ridden mother. Her scenes with Jenkins are simply remarkable for their quiet power and honesty--two actors at the very top of their game.
Coming on the heels of his acclaimed debut film The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy manages to avoid the sophomore curse and live up to and even exceed his initial promise as an all-purpose filmmaker (he also wrote the script). It should come as no surprise that McCarthy is also an actor since each performance he manages to get here is a gem. The characters are given plenty of time to develop and breathe and by the end none has worn out their welcome--in fact we don't want to leave them. His command of the camera is impressive, particularly since shooting a low-budget independent movie in the heart of New York City can be a pretty daunting task. What McCarthy really pulls off is balancing a sincere, expertly made character piece against some hot button political issues. Never once does he resort to preaching, but clearly, by putting a human face, on the wrenching subject matter, he has created not only a film that could potentially make a difference, but first and foremost, an unforgettable movie that will stir your soul. See it.
Hollywood.com rated this film 4 stars.