The Visitor is a movie reminder that ”quiet desperation“ can be quiet indeed. Unless, of course, you take up the drums.
This tender character study is a showcase for veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (North Country), so good at being reserved that when his frigid, lonely façade starts to melt, we can't help but melt with him.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a fifty-something academic economist, a widower living out his empty days in classes he doesn't care about, a career he has lost interest in, living in a house that he can't drag out of mourning.
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His wife was a pianist. She's dead. And all the piano lessons in the world (he's had many teachers) can't bring back the music.
Then, he's summoned to New York for a conference. It's been years since he stayed in the apartment they kept there.
Imagine his shock at finding immigrant squatters Tarek and his girlfriend, Zainab, there. Imagine their shock when he lets them continue to stay there.
Imagine his. This isn't the sort of thing a stick-in-the-mud like Walter does. The Visitor is what happens when a too-dry guy decides, finally, to get a little wet.
Something touches Walter — Zainab's African pride, Tarek's Syrian charm. Maybe it's that photograph that they accidentally leave behind when they try to vacate the place. This is what love looks like.
And Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who has taken up the African conga drums, is the immigrant experience writ large. He's poor. He's on the lam a long way from home. But he's in the greatest city on Earth, sitting in on drum circles or jam sessions at the neighborhood jazz club. Sleiman never lets this man become some bubbly cliché. Tarek feels like someone you know even if you've never met a jazz-loving illegal immigrant from Syria, someone having a great life and not shy about sharing it with the uptight, punctual bore Walter.
”I'm on "Arab time,'“ he apologizes. ”I'm an hour late, like all Arabs are an hour late. It's genetic.“
He teaches Walter drumming, a different way of looking at ”keeping time.“ And one of the simple pleasures of Thomas McCarthy's bittersweet little movie is seeing Jenkins picking up on the rhythms of the city.
Walter journeys from being a case study in ”White men can't drum“ to something quite the opposite. Tarek is giving his life color.
Danai Jekesai Gurira's Zainab is a study in Muslim African reserve. She's a proud Senegalese woman who makes jewelry that she sells on the street, and she's resentful at being beholden to this stranger.
An emergency arises when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation. As Tarek's mom (Hiam Abbas, simply regal) comes to see what can be done and Walter enmeshes himself more in these strangers' lives, we see the glories of the American melting pot play out on Jenkins' face.
He meets. He learns another's culture. He absorbs. He lets himself care. And when he visits Tarek in the detainment facility and Tarek asks him to drum a duet on the counter by the visitor's window, you'd swear Walter had just been asked to perform public phone sex.
The energy flags somewhat in the middle acts, but The Visitor is a tiny treasure of a movie. This is a wistful comedy that quickly finds its rhythm, but never lets that groove become a rut.