The Visitor: Awakened by a Djembe Drum

CONNECTION IS EVERYTHING. 

thevisitorFilm critic Leonard Maltin calls this film “bracingly original”, but I’m going to have to disagree. I like it as much as he does, but we’ve seen many films of this kind where an unhappy, isolated lead character is prodded out of his chosen misery thanks to unexpected circumstances, usually in the shape of another person.

The Visitor is not a terribly surprising experience… but the story still has plenty of minor twists to remain interesting and it certainly stays true to life.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a professor in Connecticut who spends his days teaching only one class in order to have time to write his fourth book on third world economics. A widower, he usually spends evenings alone in his house with a glass of wine, trying to learn how to play the piano and trying the patience of every local piano teacher. His wife was a concert pianist, but Walter is unable to use the instrument as a way of keeping her memory alive. When he is asked by the department head to present a paper in New York City that he co-signed, he’s reluctant but is more or less forced to do it. He does have an apartment in the city even though he hasn’t been there for years.

When Walter arrives, he’s shocked to find a naked woman in his bathtub and is assaulted moments later by her spooked boyfriend. The couple turns out to be Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) and they have been living there for two months; apparently, a swindler told them that the apartment belonged to him and sublet it to them. Embarrassed, they pack their things and leave in a hurry… but Walter feels sorry for them, catches up and asks them to stay until their situation is resolved. His new acquaintances make Walter realize that his life needs to change.

The realities of illegal immigration
Director Tom McCarthy had a breakthrough with his thoroughly charming indie pic The Station Agent (2003) and this film also portrays friendships in an equally positive and moving way, without providing a phony happy ending. His script is partly a character study, partly a look at the realities of illegal immigration in America. Many right-wingers love to talk about crimes committed by people who cross the border and completely ignore the humanitarian reasons why they come to America, as well as the economic contributions those people make to their new country. At the same time, U.S. authorities need to make sure that the borders aren’t porous.

McCarthy takes a closer look at this difficult balance and presents two decent human beings, one Syrian and one Senegalese, who happen to be in the country illegally. Walter Vale is awakened in several ways. As a very white male he is startled to learn that even though Tarek may be a friend of his he also has brown skin and is thus automatically likely to be targeted by cops looking for any kind of suspicious behavior. Walter also learns that the piano might not be his thing, but music is still what makes his heart race, especially the hypnotic rhythm of Tarek’s djembe drum. And there is the beginning of what might become a romance between Walter and Tarek’s mother; the tender scenes between Hiam Abbass and Jenkins are heartbreaking.

The latter is one of those actors we usually see in small roles, which is a shame because he delivers such an intelligent performance here, perfectly balancing the rigorous nature of his character with the violent, rhythmic emotions inside of him longing to find a suitable venue. Critics and the awards shows lavished praise on him more than the film itself… but The Visitor as a whole is equal to Jenkins’s performance.

The Visitor 2008-U.S. 100 min. Color. Produced by Michael London, Mary Jane Skalski. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Cast: Richard Jenkins (Walter Vale), Haaz Sleiman (Tarek Khalil), Danai Gurira (Zainab), Hiam Abbass (Mouna Khalil), Marian Seldes, Michael Cumpsty.

Trivia: Alternative version runs 108 min.

Last word: “I think this detention-immigration storyline is really a B storyline – it’s a C storyline. It’s there. So there are political aspects to the script. But I sort of defy anyone to make a modern day movie in New York and a thinking movie – a smart movie – without having a political element. I think that’s not only irresponsible, but it’s just unrealistic. I don’t know how you could have someone from another country in a movie in New York and not be dealing with some sort of political or social idea.” (McCarthy, Goat Milk)

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