'The Visitor,' Finding a Welcome in His Own Home

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in 'The Visitor' i i

Widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, left) finds himself learning how to drum — and how to live again — after he befriends Tarek (Haaz Sleiman). JoJo Whildon/Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption JoJo Whildon/Overture Films
Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in 'The Visitor'

Widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, left) finds himself learning how to drum — and how to live again — after he befriends Tarek (Haaz Sleiman).

JoJo Whildon/Overture Films
Danai Gurira  and Richard Jenkins in 'The Visitor' i i

Tarek's Senegalese-born girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), has trouble warming up to Walter — even before Tarek's arrest. JoJo Whildon/Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption JoJo Whildon/Overture Films
Danai Gurira  and Richard Jenkins in 'The Visitor'

Tarek's Senegalese-born girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), has trouble warming up to Walter — even before Tarek's arrest.

JoJo Whildon/Overture Films

Walter Vale is the sort of guy you'd describe as bland and colorless if you bothered describing him at all. He's a 60-something economics professor who seems to be doing little more than going through the motions of living. When those motions take him from his campus to his usually unoccupied New York apartment, he's surprised to find the lights on — and someone in the bathtub.

Turns out Tarek, a young Syrian emigre, and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab, have been tricked into thinking they're renting the apartment. They quickly pack, though they have nowhere to go, but Walter — realizing that they meant no harm and needing a little noise in a life left too quiet since the death of his concert-pianist wife — lets them stay. He gets more noise than he bargained for, but he sort of likes it. Tarek, you see, is a drummer, and the two men bond over music as he gives Richard lessons, teaching him to loosen up and commune with the rhythms of the djembe.

Up to this point, the film has been a story about Walter's re-emergence into life. But when a simple misunderstanding leads to racial profiling and Tarek gets arrested on the subway, the story veers in another direction. He and Zainab are in the country illegally, having long overstayed their visas, and the most trifling arrest brings with it the possibility of dire repercussions.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy is the guy who created The Station Agent, a story about a lonely, isolated soul who connects with a few other isolated souls in ways both whimsical and serious. That's not a bad description of The Visitor, too, though this time around the seriousness dominates, at least once the immigration issue gets raised.

It's easy to see where the film could have gone off the rails, sentimentally or politically correctly. But the filmmaker isn't intent on drumming messages into the audiences' head so much as he is in using drumming to reveal character through smartly nuanced performances.

Particularly those two drummers: Haaz Sleiman's enormously appealing Tarek and Richard Jenkins' Walter, who's quietly, unassumingly affecting as he figures out how not to be a visitor in his own life.

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