Richard Jenkins stars in this touching drama about a man finding himself in the midst of an immigration mess with his unexpected roommates upon his return to NYC.
Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely professor in Connecticut; he lives the day paint by numbers and carries on getting from one day to another. Struggling to attempt to learn the Piano, Walter has a love for music, but no way to play it, a role his wife once held, and his failure the art only adds to his sadness in life. When his writing partner has to pull out of a conference, he is sent in her stead as he “co-authored” the book, but has hesitation to go due to his lack of really being prepared for the conference. The faculty insists and basically forces him into going to New York City, where he used to live with his wife and family before his child grew old and his wife passed away, and he returns to stay in his apartment he still owns that he uses while he is in the city. Upon entering his home, he finds things to be a bit out of sorts and walks in on a woman taking a bath in the bathtub. Her male companion quickly closes in on Walter and pins him to the wall, demanding what he is doing here; to which Walter asks the same. They come to find that someone had been renting the apartment under false pretenses to the couple and they kindly and quickly decide to leave. Walter, feeling bad for the couple, invites them back to stay with them until they can get their feet settled and the three of them begin to bond.
Tarek, the boyfriend of Zainab who was in the bath, plays the Djembe, and it instantly captures the attention of Walter. Tarek and Walter begin to form a friendship and bond over the drum, Walter learning from Tarek, as Zainab remains weary of getting too close to Walter, and is more interested in moving out. One day Tarek and Walter go out to play the drums in the park and upon their rush to get back and meet Zainab, Tarek accidentally runs into some trouble and the film takes a turn from the sweet and funny bonding of Walter and the couple he is keeping a roof above. Zainab and Tarek are from Senegal and Syria respectively and Walter is put into the position to help the two out and to keep them together.
The film is a fairly straight drama from start to finish, though has some great bits of comedy throughout the opening half of the film. Thomas McCarthy does a fine job of convincingly bringing these people together and creating a powerful and effective story that sends a message to this country and the way it treats the people in it. He does this by getting some great and subtle work out of his actors. Richard Jenkins is great as usual here and he carries the picture as the sad and lonely Walter, who is grasping on to this couple as they are bringing something new and breathing a new life into him. Jenkins captures what the power of music can do to one, and the effect in can have on bringing people up and together even in their times of sadness and need. Jenkins works incredibly well with his unlikely roommate Tarek played by Haaz Sleiman. Sleiman creates this wonderful, friendly, and endlessly likeable companion and friend out Tarek that he is impossible not to like. The charm and charisma he brings to himself and gives to Jenkins’ Walter is both pure and sincere. Sleiman is also very capable in the more dramatic scenes in the later half of the film, while maintaining the selflessness of Tarek. Danai Jekesai Gurira plays Zainab and she does a great job of bringing the guarded, hesitant, and a tad untrusting feel most people in Zainab’s position would have to her character. She is always kind and respectful, but her face and eyes carry this uneasiness with those that are trying to help as she struggles to make it through her current adversity. Also showing up later in the game is Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother and a possible flame for Walter. The two bond over the connection to her son and become close as they share the same roof while she is in town. Jenkins and Abbass click and their moments together are sweet and tender as they bond over an unfortunate situation.
In the end, The Visitor sends an important message to this country and the way that our government is mishandling the immigration in this country post 9/11. As for our story of Walter, Jenkins does a fine job, and the story is very sweet, interesting, and compelling, it never really sucks you all the way in. It doesn’t help that the drama has no consequence on Walter other than loosing a friend, and maybe the one thing that might allow him to break out of his shell; so I guess there is a bit of consequence. Though the film doesn’t pull you in as much as it could it remains a solid film, but there is something keeping it from being great; even with all the good work from the actors involved. The film is definitely worth watching though, and is a nice little story that will get you thinking about a political topic that sadly gets avoided more than it should.