The Station Agent was one of the best indies to surface in the last decade, and now director Thomas McCarthy returns with The Visitor, about a widowered professor who finds himself involved in the lives of an immigrant couple who was squatting in his Manhattan apartment. Just as Agent introduced us to Peter Dinklage, now character Richard Jenkins- the fitness club manager in Burn After Reading, and countless other roles- nabbed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Walter Vale, a man so withdrawn that he seems to be just going through the motions of life itself.
That all changes when he’s forced to leave the university to speak at a conference, reading a paper he “co-authored” with a younger college who is indisposed. He valiantly tries to put it off, but in the end has no choice. When he returns to his abandoned Manhattan apartment after years of hiding in Connecticut, he frightens an African woman in the bathtub. Soon her husband has him up against the wall. But it is all a misunderstanding; someone rented them the unused apartment and said it was his brother-in-law’s. When Walter sees that they will be out on the street that night, he invites them to stay.
They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), immigrants from Syria and Senegal; he is a musician, a drummer, and she sells jewelry from a street table. Familiar types to New Yorkers. At first we think Walter is simply moved by pity and by his penchant for going with the flow, but there’s something else at work here. When we first meet him, he is giving his third piano teacher the boot. His wife was a concert pianist; he is obviously seeking something. And the next day, at a lunch break from his conference, he finds it. He sees two buskers in Washington Square drumming away at up-ended buckets. And he finds his head tilting, and maybe even the tiniest hint of a smile creeping at the corner of his face.
Tarek practices his djembe– an African drum- in the apartment while Walter is away, and when he returns he is intrigued. Tarek is a friendly, smiling sort who insists on giving him a brief lesson, and from then on Walter is hooked. He practices on a spare while Tarek plays nightly at a club; Zainab is both grateful and wary of Walter, perhaps shy from their first meeting, or thinking he must want something for all his generosity. There is an amusing comic energy between Walter’s constant meek surprise and her suspicion, with innocent Tarek in between. This is a movie about characters, and we are given three interesting ones to watch bounce off each other.
The movie shifts when Tarek is arrested and put in an immigrant detention facility. A stark, plain building that looks like any office box in Queens. Zainab can’t visit him unless she wants a room in the place herself, so Walter volunteers. He passes notes to him, pressing them up to the glass. They try to make sense of the labyrinthine bureaucracy, and the brick wall of administrative unaccountability. Soon Tarek’s mother arrives from Michigan, a professional, intelligent woman played by Hiam Abbass (Munich). Her stoic attitude, and helplessness in the face of the government juggernaut, eventually drive Walter to something he hasn’t done in years: feeling. And it is Jenkins’ portrayal of this awakening of a wounded shell of a man to demand basic human decency that is the crux of the film, that turns it from a cute New York story into a gripping drama that puts a face to the absurd bureaucracy of our immigration system, where following the rules is nearly impossible.
It is definitely a drama that demands your attention to its subtlety, but it is very rewarding. Richard Jenkins is up against tough competition this year, but his nomination is well deserved. The new actors who play Tarek and Zainab prove their chops and hopefully will get to play more than terrorists on “24” from now on. And if you don’t want to walk to the park and happen upon a drum circle after seeing this, you don’t love music. The soundtrack is available on Amazon.
4 doner kebab out of 5