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The Visitor (2008)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Michael Cumpsty, Bill McHenry, Richard Kind, Tzahi Moskovitz, Amir Arison
  • Director: Tom McCarthy
  • Screenplay: Tom McCarthy
  • Length: 104 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.

Tom McCarthy’s sophomore outing, The Visitor, explores the close friendship of an immigrant and a college professor who strike up their bond over a drum and the impact of the disrespectful way illegal immigrants are treated in this country.

Unlike his first film, The Station Agent, McCarthy seems to be more purposefully stepping onto the soapbox with this film. Painting immigration officials as confused, ignorant and uncaring people, McCarthy has clearly put himself on the side of illegals, which may be more of a disservice to the film as a whole as it is one of its more charming aspects.

Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, who’s appeared in several films many have heard of (The Witches of Eastwick, Absolute Power, The Core), yet still remains limitedly recognized outside of the Hollywood community. The Visitor gives him a chance to show audiences his quiet power as a performer. While I’m not entirely impressed with his characterization here, his performance is still a step above most actors working in Hollywood today.

The real acting powerhouses in the film come from the supporting cast. Haaz Sleiman is charming, passionate and intriguing as Tarek Khalil one of the two immigrants that Jenkins’ Walter Vale discovers living in his apartment. At first, Walter throws them out, but after realizing they have nowhere to stay and suffering from an amazing bout of loneliness, agrees to let them move back in. While there, Tarek helps Walter explore his musical side through his interest in drums, a passion that takes them to clubs where they can listen to eclectic music and parks where street performers can draw huge crowds.

It is an unlikely friendship between a man who seems to be lost and alone in his own life and a man who is free and exuberant about his own, yet one cannot explore that life of freedom to greatly without the potential of being deported, a real threat that results in his capture by INS mid-way through the film. In her brief scenes, Danai Gurira as Tarek’s wife (in name only) does a tremendous job conveying her distrust of Walter and her eventual understanding and acceptance of his motives.

The film’s heart and soul, however, belong to Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abase). Appearing on screen shortly after her son is incarcerated, Abase takes a limited few scenes and conveys an intense sense of sorrow and loneliness, not just over the loss of her son, but over her life in general. Although we know so little about her, a flaw of the screenplay, we come to know her very well through some brief, heartfelt scenes as she comes to understand the unusual friendship her son had with Walter.

The Visitor tries very hard to focus its attention on the plight of millions of illegal immigrants and the intolerable way they are treated by the government: moved from location to location without so much as a word to their legal relatives, and being held for months on end until they are deported without so much as a trial or assistance in becoming citizens. Yet, this theme only shows up in the last half of the film, with only moderate hints to the outcome early in the film. Instead, the first half seems dedicated to exploring the joys of life that can be felt when you open your mind to new possibilities. That the two are somewhat connected and help develop the bond that leads to Walter’s outrage, feels entirely tangential as if we were watching two solid ideas blended haphazardly.

Whether the story is vital enough to be told is up to the audience. It’s a notable effort, but relatively inferior to McCarthy’s much more ambitious and successful work The Station Agent. The performers carve a nice place out of the film for themselves, but are let down ultimately but a weakly constructed plot.