The Visitor

A professor makes some new friends -- 3.5 stars

Directed by Thomas McCarthy. April 2008, USA. Rated PG-13: 104 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 5/31/2009)

I’m starting to notice a commonality among movies screened at Boardman’s Art Theatre, and it only took me about 9 visits. Most of them use as their thematic backbone a desire on the filmmakers’ part to reach across cultural divides. Be they between atheist and believer, rich and poor, ethnic or racial minority and majority, or American and the ever-resented foreigner. The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy’s second effort as a writer-director, touches on most of those conflicts – especially that last one – with bitterness toward injustice and compassion for the victimized.

Meet Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, also from the HBO show Six Feet Under), a stuffy old economics professor at University of Something-or-Other in Connecticut. His inability to touch base with pretty much anyone, caused perhaps by the gap in his heart left by the loss of his wife, comes up first in an odd exchange with an elderly piano teacher. A long take shows him letting her in his home and coldly greeting her, then pausing for an awkward moment before walking to his piano. During the lesson, she treats him like a child, using silly metaphors – the type familiar to anyone who took piano lessons as a kid – like “let the train go through” to make him arch his fingers over the keys, creating a train tunnel-like gap. This attempt to connect with someone new and reminisce about his wife playing her favorite instrument falls flat. We then see Walter in his office, rejecting late work from a student, even though he failed to even pass out a syllabus well into the semester. We see him lunching with fellow professors, shrouded in solitude even while sitting between people in conversation. The world passes him by without ceremony.

Finally, just when he begins to white out the last digit in the class syllabus from a year ago, (so he can reuse the exact same material) as a gesture of resistance toward change, a college administrator storms into his office politely demanding that he attend a conference in New York City to give a speech on a book he co-authored. Except he really had no hand in researching the work; he just read the manuscript and slapped his name on it as per the other professor’s request. Too bad, fate said. Get your wrinkly white ass to New York!

For all his laziness in the workplace, Walter is fairly well off, considering how he can afford to rent a multi-bedroom apartment in NYC that he sleeps on only a few times a year while owning a house in Connecticut. When he steps into his urban abode, however, he finds other people’s things in his apartment. Seeing light creeping out of the crack under his bathroom door, he walks in to discover an African woman naked (Danai Gurira as Zainab) in his tub, screaming for her boyfriend to come beat Walter’s ass. Sure enough, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) flies down a flight of steps to assault the rightful tenant. Instead of threatening the intruders with a phone call to the police, Walter freezes and then begs for mercy, informing them that the apartment is, in fact, his, and not some guy Ivan’s who told the Syrian man and Senegalese woman they could move in.

I know this sounds unbelievable, and believe me, at first I had a hard time coping with this twist, but after watching them huddle together on the sidewalk with all their possessions in a few suitcases, Walter refrains from calling the police and actually lets them live with him until they find a new place. His curiosity gets the best of him after listening to Tarek practice on his hand drums, and he attends one of Tarek’s concerts, checks out a drum circle, and begins taking drum lessons with his visitor.

Their unlikely friendship blooms into a close bond that comes off as charming and authentic. Yet a tragic mishap complicates their new relationship, and Walter’s guilt drives him to hire an attorney to protect his new illegal immigrant friend from deportation. Watching Walter transform from a statute-of-a-man who hides his true emotions into a living, feeling human being who lets himself shake with laughter, shrink in sadness, and bubble in rage imparts a sense hope to the audience that maybe people can change for the better. I know it might read as a cliché situation, but trust me, McCarthy avoids replacing moments of genuine emotion with overwrought melodrama.