“The Visitor” is, so far, the finest movie of the year. It is a picture about the rebirth of a middle-aged man, but to feel its warmth and soak up its vitality, you need only to understand what it’s like to feel the difference between living and having a reason to live.
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor at a Connecticut college. When we meet him, he is so distant that he can hardly crack a smile. A widower, he has lost his passion to teach; his only attempt to find a semblance of life is taking piano lessons in his home. Already, he has rejected three teachers.
One day, he returns to his Manhattan apartment, having reluctantly agreed to read a paper at what for him is a dull academic seminar at New York University. In his abode, he finds two intruders, Tarek from Syria and his girl Zainab from Senegal. They apparently have been duped by a “phony” broker.
After they agree to leave, something in Walter takes pity on them. He invites them to stay, and although his manner remains stoic, you feel something inside him has been touched. He has made contact in an unorthodox manner with people he will grow to care about and learn from.
One day, Walter walks into the apartment to find Tarek in his shorts beating on his African drum. Tarek invites him to play along on a second drum. The syncopation is different, but Walter is not intimidated. He smiles as he begins to get what amounts to a jazz feel, as opposed to the straight 4/4, on-beat tempo. No piano for Walter. It is the beginning of a musical collaboration and beautiful friendship.
Then, a calamity intrudes. Tarek is jailed by immigration authorities. Walter becomes an advocate, and into his life walks Tarek’s mother, Mouna, played wonderfully by Hiam Abbass. Here, the narrative blossoms even more as the two share the apartment. The evocation of this relationship is tender, real and heartwarming — a lovely depiction of a growing adult love and friendship.
“The Visitor” comes to us from Thomas McCarthy, whose last effort was the superb “Station Agent.” This one is even better, resonating with clarity and infused with warmth. Jenkins, who we all have seen in character roles, often as the government agent or sheriff, turns in a splendid performance, both exquisite and perfectly nuanced. The growth his character exhibits is subtle, yet palpable. The movie he is in does not surrender to melodrama or to what we associate with Hollywood embellishments.
The movie and its star are prime candidates for Oscars
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Thomas McCarthy
STARRING Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass and Marian Seldes
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes