Watched a very good film on DVD last night. The Visitor is a story about an emotionally repressed college professor in Connecticut, a widower who seems to have settled into his own level of depression and is just going through the motions. Until. Until he is forced to give a paper at a conference in New York City and discovers squatters living in his apartment. Two illegal immigrants, seeking a better life. A gifted drummer from Syria, played by Haaz Sleiman, and his girlfriend from Senegal, played by Danai Jekesai Gurira. Tarek and Zainab think they are living in the apartment legally, having sublet from a conman. Apparently, this is all too common. After some commotion, the couple leaves, but Walter, the professor, played by Richard Jenkins, goes after them and asks them to come back and stay. In subtle and profound ways, his life is altered from that moment on.
The title is magical, ironic, ambiguous and knowing. Walter Vale is the visitor into another culture. Tarek teaches him how to drum in the African style, and little by little, Walter loosens up and embraces that new culture. What makes this all the more powerful is the incredible subtlety of the Jenkins performance. You actually have to watch him closely to notice the changes. It’s not the typical bombastic, all too obvious, 180 degrees of change Hollywood often brings us. As if all too many directors simply don’t trust the audience to observe. Observe closely. Notice things. Note small differences, careful change. So, Tarek and Zainab are vistors to America, to New York City, and so is Walter. He visits a new culture and seeks a return to his own musical roots. His wife was a concert pianist, and he wants to somehow pay homage to her through his own musical awakening. A vistor to himself and to others. Everyone is a visitor in some way.
Enter the next pivot point. Walter and Tarek have become fast friends and are on their way to play drums together in the city. Tarek is stopped in the subway by INS employees, arrested and taken away. Walter finds out where he’s been taken, tries to help, gets a lawyer and visits him in the detention center. Along comes Tarek’s mother (played by Hiam Abbass), all the way from Michigan, seeking her son. Their relationship is again something we the viewer need to watch closely, carefully, note the changes, note the small alterations in behavior, their connection, moods and concern for one another.
The ending is not typical of Hollywood. But it’s real. The movie is profoundly sad in many ways, but filled with joy. It is provocatively realistic in the best sense. It makes us think. It should make us rethink current policy. But it is also “art” because it deals with difficult, complex things in a difficult, complex way that doesn’t wear that on its sleeve. It is a completely unpretentious film and open to so much. It’s open to the visitor in all of us.