The Visitor

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The road to white people’s salvation is paved with the misery of brown and black folks, or so we learn in writer-director Tom McCarthy’s sophomore feature. Not that this lesson hasn’t been taught before: We’ve seen it in Mississippi Burning (the civil-rights movement as experienced by two white FBI agents) and Blood Diamond (Leo DiCaprio’s rapacious gem smuggler redeemed as scores of Sierra Leoneans are slaughtered). Granted, The Visitor, which has immigration as its ostensible subject, is a softer, much less inflammatory film, but its mushy, apolitical humanism is just as insidious.

Continuing the “only connect” school of Amerindie filmmaking—shown to greater effect in McCarthy’s debut, the Sundance prizewinner The Station Agent (2003)—The Visitor follows a trio of misfits. Widowed, depressive Connecticut College economics professor Walter (Jenkins), forced by his superior to attend a conference at NYU, finds his city apartment inhabited by two illegal aliens: Syrian Tarek (Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Gurira). As in The Station Agent, the triangulation shifts to dyads, with Walter and Tarek bonding over drumming. The pockmarked prof is all thumbs when it comes to classical piano—the métier of his dead wife—but once he has a go on the djembe, he opens up, just as his Arab friend, arrested in the subway for no reason, is locked away in a detention center in Queens. Rather than being concerned with his own safety, his girlfriend or his worried mother, Mouna (Abbass), what’s of utmost importance to Tarek is his friend’s new hobby: “You should go back to the drum circle. Listen to the Fela CD—it will help you,” he tells Walter during a jail visit. As the comfortably middle-class protagonist shells out money for an ineffectual immigration lawyer for Tarek, spews at guards in a snit of impotent indignation and takes Mouna to a Broadway show, other characters are simply disappeared. But what does it matter? Walter is now a card-carrying citizen of the rhythm nation.

Release details

Rated: PG-13
Release date: Friday April 11 2008
Duration: 103 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Richard Jenkins
Haaz Sleiman
Danai Gurira
Hiam Abbass
Marian Seldes