University professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is living a wasted life in The Visitor. Emotionally he has shut down, he never smiles and has no empathy or interest in others . Walter is called away to New York for a conference where he has long owned an apartment but has not visited in some time. There he meets Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) illegal immigrants from Syria and Senegal who have been living in his apartment thinking they had genuinely rented an empty apartment from ‘Ivan’ - obviously part of some real-estate scam.
Initially intent on throwing them out, Walter allows them to stay until they find a place to stay. Although Zainab is reserved and wary of Walter, Tarek’s zest for life slowly seeps into Walter’s lonely existence. Tarek plays the Djembe, an African drum and the rhythm and beauty of this instrument slowly awakens Walter, as though calling him to life from a long and cold sleep.
The second act, the thawing of Walter comes to an abrupt halt as Tarek is arrested and taken to a correctional facility for illegal refugees. Walter acts as chief go between for his new friend and Zainab, who understandably, does not want to venture inside such a place for fear that she will not be allowed out.
The third act unexpectedly hints at the germination of a new love welling up within Walter as his warming continues. Again, the way the film communicates these experiences for Walter does so economically yet without losing their impact.
The film plays out the harsh reality for refugees in the post-9/11 Western world (where “either you belong or you don’t”). We come to accept many implausible endings from Hollywood productions and it is a testament to writer / director Tom McCarthy that he presents a sensitive film about people and relationships which doesn’t scream MESSAGE MOVIE at any stage.
The film also does not ever tell us what to think or how to feel, another of the typical Hollywood foibles. We do not get a post-film epilogue to let us know that everything turns out alright, for example. The last scene is the most beautiful. Walter takes his drum to an underground railway station and starts playing. The location and the action are significant and it is how Walter plays that gives us the merest glimpse to his (and our) state of mind.
A beautiful and understated film that is all the more welcome as it is unanticipated. Were it not for Richard Jenkins’ Best Actor Oscar nomination it would have passed by altogether. I strongly encourage you to locate it and watch.
4 out of 5.