Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

The Visitor

Review by Don Hill

I had been waiting to see this film since I first heard about it.  As it opened in a limited release, it did not come anywhere near me and I was forced to wait for it to come out on DVD.  I am glad I did, as this is the exact type of movie I love to watch in my home without the distractions of an audience.

Walter (Richard Jenkins), a widowed professor, lives in Connecticut where he teaches economics at a university.  He also keeps an apartment in New York City.  He arrives back in New York for a conference and runs into some unexpected guests: a young immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) is renting his apartment and they are unaware that it was not legitimate.  After realizing that they would have no place to go, Walter lets them stay at the apartment for a few days.  As the three separate cultures collide, a friendship grows between Walter and Tarek.  Zainab, however, is less friendly and keeps Walter at arm’s length.  Walter and Tarek soon bond over a mutual love of music, and soon Tarek is teaching Walter how to play the djembe, a large hand drum.  But then, while returning from a drum session, Tarek is arrested in the subway and placed in a detention center.  Walter is pulled into the young lover’s drama since he feels partially responsible.

What a fascinating and beautiful movie this was.  The characters are intensely real and very three-dimensional and the storyline sucked me in like a vortex.  I was enamored of the characters.  Tarek and Zainab were young and struggling to fit into a world that persecuted them.  Walter was bored and lonely and completely lost in a modern world of responsibility and boring day-jobs.  I sometimes felt that Walter was too staid and reserved, but he is an older middle-class white male and he feels out of place in a world of music and illegal immigrants and of young love and especially of emotion.  After finishing the movie and watching as the characters evolved, I understood why.  Walter represents the bored member of society who does things because he has to and feels no love for anything.  In a society that has drained us of meaning and passion we have all felt that way and Walter is meant to represent us.

The acting by the entire cast was excellent.  Jenkins and Sleiman were given deep, multi-faceted roles and they each did the job magnificently.  Hiam Abbass showed the depth of emotion the human heart is capable of, from strength to love and compassion, playing Tarek’s mother, who is forced to sit idly by while her son faces confinement and possible deportation.  The movie was put together with a very resounding idea of pacing and had many highs and lows that are apparent in life.  This is the second feature of director Thomas McCarthy (after The Station Agent) and what a talent we have in this man.

This movie, in part, does point a finger at this county’s new policy on illegal immigrants and the way in which they are treated in the wake of 9/11.  If you read a plot synopsis of  The Visitor, you may get the mistaken impression that that is a large part of the story, when in fact it’s not.  The real story here is the story of the soul of the human race and how very similar and very different we all are.  Whether we are white or brown, American or foreign, young or old, we are all human and we all share the same dreams and goals and loves.  This is a movie about unlikely friendships and love and the power of the spirit to pull us through adversity.  This is a powerful movie with a powerful message that teaches without preaching.

After finishing this movie it is almost impossible to not feel optimistic about our world.  The world can be ugly and brutal and cruel but underneath that ugly skin is a beautiful, magical, musical world in which the human spirit can conquer all and hope cannot be killed.  Do yourself a favor and rent this movie.

4 ½ / 5 stars

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