Eric D. Snider

The Visitor

Movie Review

The Visitor

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: B+

Released: April 11, 2008


Directed by:


The bulk of Thomas McCarthy's professional credits are as an actor, mostly minor roles in film and television, including 10 episodes of "The Wire." But where he has made his most indelible mark is as the writer and director of the beloved "Station Agent" in 2003, and now of "The Visitor," a gently moving film that can warm your heart as easily as break it.

McCarthy is interested in stories about how strangers meet and affect one another's lives. In "The Station Agent," it was when a dwarf moved in to a dilapidated train depot and encountered the locals. "The Visitor" sets up the meeting in an even more bizarre way: a man returns to his seldom-used apartment to find that two immigrants are living in it.

The man is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a Connecticut economics professor who has lost his passion for teaching and for life. He and his dear departed wife owned an apartment in New York City, but he hasn't been to it in months, maybe years. Now, in town for a conference, he enters the flat and runs into a man and a woman who have been living there for two months. They're not squatters -- they acquired the apartment in what they thought was a legal fashion, from a man named Ivan, who must know the superintendent or something. They have keys. They've taken care of the place. They're decent people who don't want any trouble.

The man is a Syrian named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his girlfriend is Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. Once the initial confusion dies down and Walter's true ownership of the apartment is established, Tarek and Zainab apologetically gather their belongings and go. But Walter is a reasonable man. It's a two-bedroom apartment. Why not let them stay another night or two, at least until they can find a new residence?

Tarek plays African drums and has regular gigs with a jazz combo, while Zainab sells her handmade jewelry from a sidewalk booth. In New York, those are both legitimate professions. Zainab, while grateful for Walter's kindness, has a hard time warming up to him. But Tarek and Walter somehow become fast friends, and Tarek starts giving Walter drum lessons. Walter -- the white, balding, bespectacled, middle-aged economics professor in the suit and tie -- joining Tarek in an impromptu drum circle in the park is a sight to behold. Also a sight to behold: the way Walter starts to feel happier and more fulfilled through this new expression of creativity.

The crisis of the story comes when Tarek is detained by police after a misunderstanding, and it's discovered that his immigration status is in question. He and his mother lived in Michigan for a while, and there was some confusion about their visas. Now he is detained, awaiting a deportation hearing, and Walter has to navigate the labyrinthine immigration system to help him stay.

McCarthy takes the high road in not making Tarek's situation the result of his Middle Eastern background, mentioning only in passing that the government became more interested in illegal immigrants after 9/11. There are, however, a few moments when the film gets in high dudgeon over the unfairness of the immigration process, and it slips dangerously close to becoming an Important Message film rather than a human character study. The question of why Tarek and Zainab, who both knew they were illegal, weren't doing anything to correct their status is never asked.

But it's only when the film focuses on the immigration system itself -- when that's what the movie's "about" -- that it can be divisive. For the most part, the movie is about more peaceable things. It's about strangers helping each other; about a man finding new reasons to be excited about life; about people being kind to one another in times of trouble.

McCarthy's screenplay benefits from a quality that is often lacking in modern filmmaking: Every scene matters. Every scene, no matter how brief, progresses the plot or adds to our understanding of the characters, and most scenes do both. The upshot for the viewer is that with no extraneous moments -- no stalling, no wheel-spinning, no water-treading -- we never get tired of the story or the people in it. We are eager to see what will happen next, how our understanding of Walter, Tarek, and Zainab will grow, how the crisis will be resolved.

At the center is Richard Jenkins, a familiar character actor (he was the dead father on "Six Feet Under") who to my knowledge has not played the lead in a film before. His performance is marvelous, a perfect example of a talented actor fully inhabiting his character. Walter is reserved and even-keeled, which in many actors' hands would translate as "boring." But, with shades of Jack Nicholson's similar turn in "About Schmidt," Jenkins makes us love the widowed, directionless Walter -- sympathize with him, relate to him, and love him.

Jenkins is supported, of course, by Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira, and by Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother. Sometimes movies like "The Visitor," made outside the Hollywood factory, have a certain energy to them, where you can tell the performers love acting and are serious about their work. McCarthy will probably continue to support himself as an actor, but I hope he keeps making these small, lovely films, too.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13, two F-words; no other objectionable content at all

1 hr., 48 min.

Stumble It!

This item has 6 comments

  1. Reynold Feldman says:

    Maybe it's because I am a 68-year-old retired university professor who has also lost a beautiful wife to cancer; maybe it's because I am a Jewish-Catholic with strong academic and personal interests in Islam; maybe it's because I had a successful 43-year marriage across races, borders, and religions; maybe it's simply that "The Visitor" is a good film--a real human story that might have happened and wonderfully brought to life by the cast. Whatever the reasons, I loved this film, which I saw last night. I am already planning to visit "The Visitor" again in the next few days, this time with my daughter in tow, as she completes her doctoral dissertation and is about to become a professor herself. [SPOILER ALERT] At this point I am rooting for a sequel in which Walter and Mouna reunite and get married in Syria--he'd probably have to become Muslim--, he adopts Tarek, they return to the United States, Tarek and Zainab get back together too, and they all live happily ever after. Hey, at my age I'm entitled to a happy ending or two!

  2. Mark says:

    I really liked this film too. I wasn't expecting much, which helped, but it was more than that. I just thought it was well written and, especially, well acted. You can tell everyone involved really cared about this project. Like Eric, I was wary of the Immigration message, which I thought strongarmed the plot at times, but it was such a good movie I didn't mind so much. It is a bit slow, but it's worth it.

  3. Joey says:

    Fantastic movie. It makes you think & breaks your heart at the same time. Highly recommended. I think I'm a little late seeing it (I didn't even hear about it until a few days ago), I'm glad I got to see it in the theater instead of DVD.

  4. Midgely says:

    Unfortunately, this is the worst kind of "message" movie. The illegals give little speeches about how they've done nothing illegal and how it's "unfair" that the government wants to deport them. They also seem to be completely ignorant of immigration laws and procedures (which I find VERY hard to believe!). The main character (who is a university professor of international policy and author of several books) seems incapable of doing anything to help his illegal friends (also hard to believe. Why didn't he get some advice from law faculty at his university?) He gives a rant also about "how unfair" it is. His argument is that, after living numerous years in the U.S. the illegal "has a life" -- a pretty weak argument and totally unbelievable when coming from someone who is supposed to be a university professor.

  5. Mr. V. says:

    Far from being a "message movie," this is a sensitive portrayal of four decent human beings whose lives intersect in fresh, usual ways. Their humanity is always the focus, especially while larger contexts (academic study of global economics vs. actual problems of immigration and homeland security) serve as backdrop. The role that Tarek plays in Walter's transformation, from emotionally detached individual to re-engaged human being, underscores the value of building bridges, rather than walls, between people of widely different backgrounds. It is in this humane exploration that we find the ways in which one rediscovers life's possibilities before one's very eyes. "The Visitor" offers a marvelous series of performances by exceptionally fine actors like Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass. It is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.

  6. Eric says:

    I caught The Visitor when it was in theaters, and it was one of my favorite films of the whole year! Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under was outstanding, and the message of friendship throughout the movie was very powerful. The Visitor will be released on DVD October 7th, and I definitely plan on buying it. If you haven't seen the movie yet, you can find more info here:

Subscription Center

Eric D. Snider's "Snide Remarks"

This is to join the mailing list for Eric's weekly humor column, "Snide Remarks." For more information, go here.


Eric D. Snider's "In the Dark"

This is to join the mailing list for Eric's weekly movie-review e-zine. For more information on it, go here.

Visit Jeff J. Snider's website | Diamond Clarity Chart