The Visitor (2008) ***1/2

Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 48min
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Stars: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira
Genre: Drama
Language: English

It’s Never Too Late to Grow Up

In a Nutshell


Straight as an Arrow

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear

Who's That?

Few Main Characters

Naughty Words


Naked people




The plot is simple but quirky:  a dried-up university professor in his 60’s returns to the pied-a-terre he maintains in Manhattan and discovers an illegal immigrant couple nesting there.  He opts for compassion and finds his inner musician; his tenant runs afoul of the INS.  The Visitor is a constantly engaging study of how different hardships affect very different, very decent people — how they cope, survive and transcend.  But, the real story lies in beautifully defined characters and the actors who bring them to life.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an academic in the most unflattering sense of the word.  Tenured, published, and bored with the one course he teaches when he feels like it, Walter cold-shoulders students and fellow faculty alike and plays university politics like a Washington bureaucrat.  Oh-so comfortably alienated Walter has been hollowed by the loss of his wife and, perhaps, a lack of courage to pursue youthful dreams.  In Walter’s walk and his vague awkwardness wearing tweed and tie we glimpse a kid who breathed the bracing air of campus life in the 1960’s, then chose safety.

The interloper, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), is unburdened with any agenda and utterly at ease in his own skin, magnetic, joyful and generous.  He advises Walter, “Don’t think!” and schools his shy benefactor in the elemental rhythms of African drumming.  This passion has sustained Tarek through political exile from Syria.

Tarek’s Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), is a strong, cautious yet sweet-humored young woman with no illusions about her own precarious situation.  She displays uncommon tolerance for her lover’s “genetic” Arab capacity for tardiness, and for the casual prejudice she experiences in the American street.   A condescending shopper for her beaded jewelry doesn’t even raise Zainab’s eyebrow.

Tarek’s mother, Mouna Khalil, is played by Hiam Abbass with a depth and dimension that recalls the roles of Mercouri and Magnani, yet Mouna retains an attitude of modest reserve.   She is a lady of breeding and taste, a survivor who rebuilt a broken life with no loss of dignity or hope.  She can seize any moment of genteel pleasure or quiet heroism, and prevail.  Such a rich portrayal can shine only in a film without directorial affectation or any list toward sensationalism.

Thomas McCarthy deserves applause for the graceful and right-sized realization of his own screenplay.  It begins with a brief but exquisite performance by Marian Seldes as a patient piano teacher of restless suburban children now called upon to coax art and discipline from Walter’s resistant fingers.  To sum up Walter’s empty existence before the visitation, McCarthy frames their figures in the pale symmetry of a colonial doorway, acknowledging failure.

Among the many characters developed tenderly and meticulously in this marvelous “little movie”, place also plays a starring role.  New York’s Washington Square neighborhood, the subway system stretching into post-industrial Queens, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain and the ferry to Staten Island at night are experienced intimately.  The light is autumnal, the air gritty, and the sounds recognizable to any native.  Walter’s thoughtfully appointed Village apartment exudes the spirit of his departed wife.  A ghastly detention center privately contracted for the post-9/11 processing of illegal immigrants incarnates Kafka in a red-blooded American way.

There is much mercy in this film to recommend it, not the least of which is restraint in dealing with hot political topics of today.  The Visitor invites you to think, and to feel.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.


Samuelbecket1977 said on May 10, 2008


We just saw the movie last night and your fine review is right on target. This movie is an inditement of the Bush administrations view of illegal immigrants and how seemingly innocent people get caught up in the process.

Cher said on June 24, 2008


I saw “The Visitor” last week & your review was right on target.

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