The music has gone out of Walter Vale’s life. Literally. His wife, a concert pianist, has died and so he sleepwalks through his job of teaching economics at a Connecticut college. He’s done good work in the past, written well-received books, but for some time now he’s been going through the paces: recycling old exams, pretending to council students, attending – but not participating in - department meetings. He’s tenured so what can they do to get rid of him?
Walter Vane (Richard Jenkins) has been putting all his energy into remembering; he has given up on learning, and given up on having his students learn.
Walter Vale has no goals, no plans, except to keep the memory of his wife alive. His one attempt to this end is to take up the piano, no doubt to get closer to his wife, but his teacher tells him bluntly that he has zero aptitude. And so his depression deepens.
When he is coerced into substituting for a colleague to deliver a paper at an econ conference in Manhattan, he is extremely irritated. He has an apartment in Manhattan, a pied-à-terre which he and his wife used during the concert season, and which he’s avoided coming back to since her death. He’s in for a surprise. The apartment is occupied. By a foreign couple no less, a Syrian man Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and a Senegalese woman Zainab (Danai Gurira)! What the hell is going on? It turns out the apartment super was doing a favor – and making some money on the side - since Professor Vane never comes into Manhattan anyway.
Well, Walter wants them out. Now. They quickly gather up their things. Suddenly, out of the blue, he tells them they can stay – until they find a place. We’re not sure why he changes his mind. It’s not logical, and he seems puzzled himself, no doubt because it’s an involuntary, disinterested offer devoid of motivation. Walter’s thinking has been put aside in favor of a gratuitous act which will have unforeseen risks – and unsuspected outcomes.
Thanks to Tarek he learns to play an African drum. It’s not the piano, but for Walter it is more: through this drum he discovers the rhythms of life – the life around him. This does not happen overnight but slowly as Walter begins to see those around him, especially the relationship between Tarek and Zainab.
When he learns that the two are illegal aliens, he is at first appalled and feels he may have been set up. But shortly he accepts their situation, perhaps thinking, “Well, that makes three of us.” When Tarek is taken by immigration officers and put in confinement, Walter does all in his power to get him released. Director McCarthy does not present the US immigration system as very enlightened, but he does not rail against them as some critics have suggested. It does give us pause, makes us question how we are treating these visitors to our shores. (The film’s title seems to refer to different kinds of visitors.)
Tarek’s mother Moona (Hiam Abbass) arrives to help her son. The scenes between Walter and this beautiful woman could have become a cliché but McCarthy and the two principals handle it well.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s second feature – the first “The Station Agent” was one of my top films for 2003 – is poignantly insightful, the story of a man who doesn’t realize that searching for lost time (his past life with his wife) can only be overcome by a leap of goodwill.
Jenkins should be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, unless the Academy chooses to ignore low-budget films as they’ve done in the past. Here Jenkins slowly changes, his facial expressing so nuanced that we come to believe that this man’s “conversion” from an empty cipher is not only believable but has a spirited dimension, so much so that when we see him playing that drum at the end of the movie we feel he has found his place.
There are few American directors who've started out their careers with two memorable movies. Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) comes immediately to mind. More recently we have the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple and Raising Arizona).
Add Thomas McCarthy to the list. Both The Station Agent and now The Visitor are impeccably nuanced films of loneliness and friendship.