Walter Vale is coasting. Actually, it’s worse than that — he’s drifting aimlessly without purpose. The widower sleepwalks through the college courses he teaches, goes through the motions of trying to learn the piano, the instrument his wife mastered with great success and has no problem laying authorship to work that is not his own. Making no further emotional connection with the outside world would suit him just fine. However, fate, and the bit-too-neat writing style of also-director Thomas McCarthy, throws him a curve as he finds two illegal aliens living in the Manhattan apartment he rarely uses.
While there is a certain degree of narrative manipulation at play in The Visitor, the emotions it elicits and the callous politics it daringly puts in the spotlight make it one of the most radical and heartbreaking films of the year. Whereas Under the Same Moon looked at the issue of illegal immigration in a maudlin fashion, McCarthy’s movie takes a more realistic approach that ultimately delivers a more powerful and intelligent indictment of the government’s treatment of illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens that have been swept up in the current 9/11 fueled paranoia.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that Walter, played with quiet intensity by Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins, is a professor specializing in globalization. Suddenly, all of the abstract concepts and theories he is suppose to be an expert on winds up on his doorstep. Tarek (Haaz Sleimen) is a kind and passionate musician whose drumming catches Walter’s ear, who soon finds himself taking lessons from the young man. His fiancée Zainab (Danai Gurira) is suspicious of everyone and is not easily won over by Walter, that is until Tarek is arrested and put in detention. Seeing Walter go to great lengths to free his new friend and comfort his mother, Mouna (Haim Abbass) who shows up unexpectedly, helps her realize that not all Americans are the enemy.
Music is the first thing that brings the characters together and the joy Walter finds in learning the drums and Tarek gets from teaching him, infuses the film with a sense of good will and points out that the borders that divide us are often fueled by fear and paranoia and that through art, communication can be brokered and sustained. It may seem a bit naïve and trite, but there’s a degree of sincerity in the performances that negates this tone and provides a sense of humanity that the film builds upon.
The film marches towards an inevitable conclusion and therein lies its power. Not in my recollection has a fictional American film pulled the cover back on the callous nature of the United States detention policy. The facility that Tarek finds himself in hides in plain sight as it looks like a bland warehouse rather than a prison. McCarthy does not need to emphasize that those inside have been filed away and forgotten like lost files. Walter’s ultimate rage against this system is cathartic but ultimately futile.
McCarthy has a way of dealing with grief and emotional turmoil as evidenced by his first film, The Station Agent. The Visitor thankfully shows that the talent and insight he showed in that film was no fluke. Dealing with matters of the heart seems to be his specialty and I, for one, can’t wait to see where he takes his study next.
The Visitor begins at Boardman’s Art Theatre on June 30.
Runtime: 1h 48min — Rated PG-13 — Drama