The Visitor: A well-tailored little indie film. Like a very nice suit.
Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Step Brothers, etc – one of those actors you recognize but don’t know) stars.* He plays Prof. Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who’s stagnating following his wife’s death. When he’s coerced into attending a conference in Manhattan, he sets foot in the tiny apartment he’s owned for years but never uses. In doing so, he finds two immigrants who’ve been living there for months: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Confusion ensues.
Once it becomes clear that Tarek and Zainab are as much the victims of fraud as Walter is, Walter begins to open up to them gradually. He allows them to stay in his pied-a-terre while he’s presenting at the conference. He learns about Zainab’s day job and Tarek’s passion for the drum. And he rediscovers passion.
The Visitor isn’t perfect. It lacks the understated dignity of Tom McCarthy’s (BC ’88) last movie, The Station Agent. There are several moments that state the movie’s theme with a quiet elegance: Walter, awkwardly sitting on his sofa and drinking a glass of wine, while Tarek and Zainab hurriedly pack their things. Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) talking with Zainab over coffee in a small cafe. Little moments, well-framed.
And then there’s Walter’s rant at a security guard, the climax of the film. It’s not the temper that I mind; given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t have been surprised with more. But the dialogue, and the delivery, feel so stilted. Tom McCarthy was a featured regular on the final season of The Wire, which shot right around this time: maybe he took away the wrong lessons?
But what makes the film work, even in light of this clumsiness, is Tarek’s unshakable charisma. Haaz Sleiman has an infectious smile and a warm attitude. He’s not merely believable as a lover, a musician and a guide to New York. He’s admirable. He’s the kind of lover, musician and guide – and friend – that we should all want to be. This is essential, because the latter half of the movie hinges on identifying with him.
The Visitor is about how the unforeseen consequences of our actions can hurt the ones we care about. It’s about the horrors of institutional bureaucracy. But it’s ultimately about the same existential crisis that the West has been grappling with since the 50s – that sense of alienation in one’s own home. In dealing with that, The Visitor runs into the same obstacles that every artwork tackling the existential crisis has. But discovering just how little you know about your own home can be freeing, as well as terrifying.
* As an example of how hard it is to remember this man, I called him “Christopher Perkins” in the first draft.