By Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
When The Visitor opens, 62-year-old economics professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is already in a profound funk. Walter is a widower. He has lost interest in his students; he has no apparent friends; and he can’t even muster the enthusiasm to apply himself to the piano lessons he’s taking.
Then, on a visit to New York City, Walter discovers a pair of illegal immigrants living in his West Village apartment. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a musician from Syria, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), are the victims of a real estate scam and apologetically offer to leave. But knowing they have nowhere to go, the professor allows the couple to stay. In return, Tarek offers to teach him to play the drums.
Much like he did in his first film, The Station Agent, writer-director Tom McCarthy uses The Visitor to show how unexpected connections between strangers and the friendships that develop in the unlikeliest of situations sometimes end up being the ones that shape our lives. The plot eventually relies on the post-9/11 racial landscape and immigration policy. But it’s Walter’s gradual reawakening at the hands of his two new friends that is the film’s real focus.
Jenkins, a veteran actor best known for playing the father on Six Feet Under, portrays Walter’s detachment from the world around him so convincingly it takes a while for even the audience to warm up to him. But although his inevitable transformation might sound schematic and predictable on paper, the actor makes you feel as if you’re watching a man rediscover his appetite and curiosity for life. The Visitor is a small movie, but its emotions could not be writ any larger.
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Writer-director: Tom McCarthy
Producers: Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London
An Overture Films release. Running time: 103 minutes. Vulgar language.