The Visitor, directed by Thomas McCarthy, moves with the slow pace of the film’s main character. Retaining a highly emotional tone throughout, the film follows a lost man who sees those around him as an opportunity for redemption.
McCarthy chooses to follow the pathetic nature of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) rather than focus on the fast-paced plot. Though Walter becomes more animated as the film progresses, the film itself seems locked into the original slow pace. It never catches up to the quick tempo of the bucket beating Walter listens to in New York City’s Washington Park.
Walter is a professor from Connecticut who finds squatters living in his New York apartment after spending many months out of town. The unexpected tenants, Tarek Kahlil (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), are illegal immigrants from Syria. Over the course of the film, the couple lifts Walter out of a slump of consuming loneliness, showing him the way to a better life.
The Visitor is divided into clearly defined acts, which is frustrating for the audience because this rigid structure seems to imply that viewers can’t understand the natural transitions of the characters’ lives. However, the acts are effective in suggesting the abrupt changes of an immigrant’s life. We are led through the film act by act, starting with Walter’s life in Connecticut, followed by his discovery of Tarek and Zainab in his apartment, his drum lessons, and his budding relationship with Tarek, and ending with the relationship that forms between Walter and Tarek’s mother.
Tarek is the bright center of the film, giving it life with every beat of his drum. Though he serves a purpose in the plot—he is instrumental to Walter’s self-discovery—it is Sleiman’s performance that allows the film to hold the audience’s attention. While Walter is an interesting character for the first act of the film, his mundane existence is not enough to carry the film through its major turning points. The larger-than-life Tarek, however, carries the film. His happiness, his pain, and his truth—they all bring to the forefront the struggle of illegal immigrants.
According to McCarthy, who attended a screening of The Visitor a few weeks ago, the main issues addressed in the film are post–9/11 immigration laws and the treatment of immigrants. Though the film ignores what would seem to be the most obvious aspect of that subject—Mexican immigration—perhaps the choice of a Syrian immigrant is the most fitting for the present day. In a country where foreigners are often persecuted for their looks and their supposed beliefs, a Syrian national could approach this subject with both an understanding of the U.S. and of the world he lives in.
However, the film never confronts the issue of Tarek’s race or origin. He is merely a representative of the many immigrants who enter this country both legally and illegally. He becomes a symbol of the movement of people across borders, rather than a symbol of the treatment of specifically Middle Eastern immigrants.
Though an attempt to discuss post–9/11 immigration is made, the film mostly fails in presenting this subject as an element of Tarek’s struggle. Instead, the film succeeds at showing how people interact, overcome adversity, and come together as human beings rather than as Syrian or American.
Embodying this universal sentiment is the interaction between Walter and Mouna Kahlil (Hiam Abbass), Tarek’s mother. Though Mouna struggles at first, she eventually finds a fitting relationship with him. The most important relationship in the two middle acts is between Tarek and Walter, but the focal point of Walter’s emotional awakening comes from his interaction with Mouna.
Abbass presents Mouna as a closed character, who, like Walter, needs a new relationship to find her emotions. In portraying a Muslim woman who does her best to live in America, she comes across at first as cold, unreasonable, and focused only on what she wants. At a critical point in the film, she declares that despite her son’s wishes, she will not return to Michigan and leave him alone in detention. As her character grows along with Walter’s, Abbass’s talent shines through. It dawns on you that she is not selfish, but devoted. Her past indiscretions were merely the front of a woman grieving for her son.
The final moments of the film are heart-wrenching. They demonstrate that a movie, while failing in the task it set out to accomplish, can be successful in other ways. Though The Visitor is not as political as the director intended, it is a beautiful testament to how people can come together despite their differences and how people can grow in ways they never expected or even realized they wanted.