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When I first saw the trailer for the new film The Visitor I knew I wanted to see it solely on the basis that Richard Jenkins was going to be the star. I’ve loved this guy in everything he has done, mostly small to medium supporting work; it’s great to see him get the chance to carry an entire movie. Of course there was more to like: the music seemed fantastic, the storyline something with some dramatic weight, and the fact that it was written/directed by the same guy who did The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy, couldn’t hurt. Now, granted, I have not seen that film, but I really, really want to…Peter Dinklage is the man. However, it only had good press and I will not be surprised if this one carries on that torch, because besides some heavy-handed diatribe about immigration in the US, McCarthy has crafted a pretty solid piece of cinema.

What we have is a story about a college professor who has become so accustomed to his life, and so ingrained with routine that any change is unacceptable; he hides behind past achievements in order to exist with as little work as necessary. Teaching one class, supposedly working on his new book, (we never see him even touch a computer), and drinking wine with every meal, (yes there’s a glass of red next to his Cheerios bowl), Walter Vale is in desperate need of a change-up. After his excuse to not go to NYC—because he didn’t actually write the paper he is given credit for at the conference being held there—is disregarded, Vale receives that alteration in the form of two illegal squatters staying at his apartment. Conned into thinking the place was for rent, the couple is as scared of Vale as he is of them, the plight of having no place to stay thaws the professor’s heart as he lets them spend the night. Between seminars, Tarek begins to train his new housemate in the art of the African drum, infusing music back into Vale’s life after the passing of his classically trained pianist wife. Through the drumbeats and the sheer kindness of these two souls, Walter finally finds a purpose to life once again.

This in and of itself would have made an interesting film, music bringing these disparate creatures together—a white, upper class intellectual with his new Syrian and Senegalese friends. In order to add a bit of drama is the wrench of imprisonment for Tarek after a fluke incident in the subway and his cash card malfunctioning. While incarcerated, Vale decides to do whatever he can to help free him, visiting whenever possible, neglecting his students back in Connecticut, and putting a lawyer on retainer to do what is necessary. The emotional evolution from Jenkins is very well performed, as is Danai Jekesai Gurira playing Tarek’s girlfriend slowly finding trust in this stranger all of a sudden doing what he can to help them out.

Through the emotional tension and the burgeoning relationship between all involved, including Tarek’s newly arrived mother from Michigan, comes the not so subtle inclusion of commentary on America’s immigration policy. Does it suck that the people living a good life get deported and the terrorists do not? Yes. Is Tarek correct when saying that no one in the detention facility is a terrorist because they have financial backers? Yes. Does any of that excuse the fact that they are illegal, they have been notified that they can’t achieve asylum and must go back? No. I’m sorry but it doesn’t matter how nice you are, you must go through the right channels. But this is a conversation for a different forum. I just wish McCarthy wouldn’t have used a sweet little film about life and love to get those issues out there, especially with blatant moments like the American flag fade towards the end. I did however enjoy the line from Jenkins’ Vale of, “we aren’t all just helpless children.” It’s a true statement, unfortunately it falls on deaf ears because there is a little something called domestic safety that needs to be upheld to its fullest. Once you start making exceptions, no good can result.

Despite the immigration law issues, I really had a good time with The Visitor. The character studies are fantastic and every performance genuine. Haaz Sleiman is great as Tarek, spreading his exuberance for life with all he encounters. Not even the sick of life Vale can resist laughing when around him. Hiam Abbass, as Tarek’s mother is also very good. An illegal herself, she refuses to be anywhere but by her son’s side until the situation is rectified, either way. With many parallels to the life of Vale, the two forge a deep bond for the young man on the cusp of being sent away forever, back to Syria. One his actual flesh and blood, the other someone who has put upon himself a position of fatherly love, and both having lost their spouses—an event that changed their worlds as a result—they slowly begin to start living again with the excitement of uncertainty. The music is great, I’d love to check out the soundtrack, and while some moments seem to linger too long, one cannot fault the final image. A perfect ending, realistic in every way, McCarthy doesn’t compromise a thing.

The Visitor 8/10

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photography:
[1] Danai Gurira and Haaz Sleiman in “The Visitor.” 2008 Overture Films.
[2] Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in “The Visitor.” 2008 Overture Films.

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