The Visitor (2007) lured me on the pedigree of its director Tom McCarthy, whose previous film The Station Agent (2003) hit the bullseye for me. Although there are structural similarities, The Visitor is definitely a different film, darker and less optimistic in some respects — but no less moving, and ultimately a great story.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor, lives his life on autopilot — teaching a course at a Connecticut university, working half-heartedly on a book, and moving quietly through life. When the university administration recruits him to present a paper he just barely co-authored at a conference in New York City, Vale reluctantly drives to the big city, to stay in a rarely used apartment he keeps in Manhattan. When he arrives, however, he finds it unexpectedly inhabited by two illegal immigrants: a Syrian drummer named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and a Senagalese jewelcrafter named Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). Surprising everybody (including himself), Vale invites them to stay, and finds their friendship stirring him out of his rut.
Jenkins is terrific as the withdrawn, introverted widower, a step removed from his own life and forced out of his routine, to find himself awakened by the interesting new people in his life. Sleiman and Gurira provide capable support, as does Hiam Abbass, who arrives later as Tarek’s mother. All three of these characters are endearing, well developed, and real, and each of them helps sell one of the film’s overarching messages: that we’re a nation of immigrants, and that there’s strength in our diversity. This inherently political angle to the film is neither shrill or heavy-handed, and while it’s certainly a sad story, it’s also uplifting in its way. The film’s final image is brilliant, and really hit me where I live. A terrific little film, well worth seeing.