How would you react if you discovered that someone was already living your life-- not your life exactly but living the life you’d always wanted but never had the courage to attempt?
When the bored, humorless, impersonal Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) who’s been sleepwalking through his life by teaching the same course for twenty years and coasting professionally under the guise of writing a book is ordered by the dean of his Connecticut institution to present a co-authored paper at a Global Policy and Development Conference New York University, he tries to find any excuse not to go. However, his feeble excuses seem to be as unconvincing as the ones his students give him when turning in late assignments and, packing up a few pertinent belongings, he returns to an apartment he’d owned for twenty-five years which he’d shared with his late pianist wife. It's his wife's music that seems to have left a larger absence than the mostly absent Walter, as a neighbor fondly recalls her keystrokes in a way that makes us instantly aware that the reason Walter has gone through five piano teachers in a quest to learn the instrument himself is because to the man, who still wears his wedding band, the only time the piano sounded the way it should is when she’d been alive.
Startled to find fresh flowers in a vase and a light wafting out into the hallway from the bathroom, once he gets further into the apartment, Walter realizes that he is not alone, only to discover a young Muslim illegal immigrant couple has been renting the place for two months, having been tricked into the arrangement by an unseen fast-talker named Ivan. After apologetically packing up their belongings and setting off into the night, Walter’s humanity gets the better of him and he offers to share the place with the Syrian Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend from Senegal by way of France, Zairab (Danai Gurira) for a few days until they can figure out their next move. Soon charmed by the earnest and friendly drummer Tarek, Walter is thrilled to find a new ally who shares his passion for music and the two embark on an amusing, surprisingly gentle and natural friendship that manages to subtly touch viewers similar to the way that the outsiders of writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s first film The Station Agent did years earlier. When a misunderstanding leads to Tarek’s arrest and detainment in an immigration detention center in Queens, Walter, who originally hadn’t wanted to leave Connecticut is surprised to now find himself with the inability to leave Tarek, Zairab and New York City out of loyalty and genuine compassion that’s strengthened into a tender, awkward courtship when Tarek’s beautiful mother Mouna (Satin Rouge’s Hiam Abbass) arrives to find out why she hasn’t heard from her son.
Winner of three awards at Method Fest, this official selection at both the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals is sure to strike a chord with McCarthy’s Station Agent fans but instead of on the surface deceptively being advertised as a similar cute story of opposites and oddities coming together, it’s a gentle, humanistic and moving tale that celebrates diversity and understanding throughout. Although there are a few covert political messages sprinkled throughout (along with a few overt ones), McCarthy’s deftly written and inspiringly acted work, which features a breakout role for Sleiman and a solid showcase for Jenkins, succeeds because even though it has the perfect platform to become a “message movie,” it forgoes the urge to preach. Instead, The Visitor emphasizes human relationships over sociological statements and open conversation over sound bytes. McCarthy's The Visitor is highly recommended and one of the best films I was fortunate enough to see at the 2008 Phoenix Film Festival.