The Visitor

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.

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; PG-13, two F-words; no other objectionable content at all.)