March 31, 2010
The Visitor (2007)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Thomas McCarthy
Stars: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Mouna Khalil

What it's about. This slow-starting but eventually rewarding drama stars Richard Jenkins as Walter, a tenured college professor who has been living on drab autopilot since the death of his wife some time ago.

Walter teaches in Connecticut but for no apparent reason keeps an apartment in New York City that he rarely visits. Prodded to deliver a paper at a conference in the Big Apple, Walter checks in to his apartment to find two illegal immigrants living there. They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a professional bongo drummer from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), a handicraft street vendor from Senegal. Tarek and Zainab are a young couple, but their personalities widely differ. Tarek is sunny and engaging. Zainab is humorless and distant.

Once Walter learns that the two immigrants are tenant fraud victims with no place to go, he makes the surprising decision to allow them to stay. He soon bonds with Tarek, who begins to teach the bongo drums to the middle-aged and balding Walter.

Life is looking up for Walter, who was previously friendless and lonely. But abruptly, Tarek is stopped by police on the subway, who turn him over to the immigration service. Deportation proceedings begin on the imprisoned Tarek, whose disposition gradually changes from hopeful to angry.

Tarek's hottie forty-something mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up at Walter's apartment looking for her son, since his regular calls to her have ceased. Walter fills her in, and convinces her to move in. A romance begins to build between them, but Tarek's status changes once again, creating closure for the film.

How others will see it. This low budget character study had a largely unknown cast, but it did well in the festival circuit, and eventually garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the formerly obscure Jenkins. The user ratings are universally high, but females over 45 like it best of all, and give it an 8.7/10. This was likely due to the final reels romance between Walter and Mouna, designed to bring tears to the sympathetic eye.

How I felt about it. Thomas McCarthy (remember that name) is credited as both director and sole author. As an actor, McCarthy has a long resumé of movie and television work, but his career as a filmmaker began with The Station Agent (2003). The movie was highly acclaimed, and paved the way for The Visitor. I have not seen The Station Agent, but I suspect it is in the same league as The Visitor. McCarthy has since scored another success as a writer, contributing to the story for the Pixar toon Up.

But back to The Visitor. This is a well made film that manages to make an unlikely friendship believable. Walter and Tarek are separated by culture and generation, but find they have something important in common: they are fascinated by the bongo drum. It is a nice touch that Walter never achieves a similar friendship with Zainab. She screams in fear when she first sees the nebbish professor, and she is quick to move out once Tarek is incarcerated. She reacts with mute shock to Walter's attempt at humor with the film's best line: "Don't worry. I'll keep my pants on."

Walter has much better luck with Mouna, who is unexpectedly attractive. This is the formula portion of the movie, and we are supposed to coo with romantic pleasure when his surprise date location turns out to be the Broadway play of her favorite soundtrack CD. Mouna is just too pretty, noble, and pleasant to be fully believable. Certainly, she is a dream woman for Walter, and that is the real reason for her appearance.

Much more credible is the Queens detention center, in effect a prison for illegal aliens. The center is staffed by guards inured to a procession of desperate family members of detainees. The guards are every bit as unhelpful and subtly contemptuous as one would expect them to be.