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Arts & Culture

The Visitor

The Visitor focuses on a widowed Connecticut economics professor named Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). One day he arrives at his little used New York apartment to find a couple living there.

WOMAN : (screams) "Who are you?"
WALTER : "I'm not going to hurt you, this is my apartment. I have keys."

Tarek (a charming Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend are the victims of a real estate scam. Now they have nowhere to go. But Walter surprises them and us by inviting them to stay. McCarthy, who wrote and directed the film presents Walter as a man disconnected from his life and his community.


WALTER : "I haven't done any real work in a very long time, I pretend to look busy."

THOMAS McCARTHY : "I think Walter is a guy that has lived a full life. He's been married, he's had a child, a career in academia, he's a professor of economics at a very good university, he's published, But he's now widowed and probably lost his passion for his vocation. I think he's a little bit adrift. That said I think he's still a guy who has a lot of integrity, a lot of self-respect. He's not lying around watching TV and eating ice cream. He's still in many ways, even if only on the surface, living a very together lifestyle. I think one clear indication is that he's taking piano lessons. You don't take piano lessons at that age in life unless you're still trying. I think what I find compelling about him is that he realizes that he sort of needs to reinvent or reinvest himself in life but he just doesn't know quite how to do that."

TAREK : "Follow me..." (plays drums)

Tarek provides the unexpected means of Walter's reinvention. Walter, who's been trying to learn how to play piano, becomes fascinated with Tarek's djembe drums and begins to learn how to play.

TAREK : Walter I know you are very smart man but don't think, thinking just screws things up."


Tarek and the drums pull Walter out of his shell. He even starts to partake in the drum circles at Central Park, joining total strangers in spontaneous musical improvs. Walter also begins to take an interest in Tarek and Zainab as people.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass strike up an unlikely friendship. (Overture Films)

Actor Richard Jenkins--probably best known as the dead patriarch of Six Feet Under -- played percussion as a kid and took to the role of Walter. But it's Jenkins' ability to disappear inside a role that makes his performance so compelling. He makes Walter a dignified but very quiet and internalized person. He doesn't like his space invaded and he respects the space of others. At school he can't even make eye contact with his students and he resents when they or the administrators want more form him. These things could be read as negatives. But in dealing with Tarek and later Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass), he's always careful to step back when they receive a call, or to look away when he presents Tarek with a letter that came for him at the apartment. Jenkins' Walter is a man who is very careful about respecting the privacy of others.

McCarthy says he cast Jenkins because he is an actor people will recognize even if they do not know his name.

THOMAS McCARTHY : "I think a lot of people do think they recognize him, and think they know him from other things not just necessarily movies. I think that's the strength I play on. He has this wonderful everyman quality about him. He can kind of disappear into the role. And he wouldn't tip the balance. I mean my three other leads are not as familiar to American audiences and I didn't want to suddenly tip the balance in such a way that we have this big movie star. It felt like that would really prevent the audience from suspending it's disbelief and going with the story."

The story pulls us into his friendship with Tarek, and then introduces a complication.

TARE : "What did I do?"
OFFICER: "Come with us."

Tarek is an illegal immigrant and he ends up in a detention center. Walter tries to help but realizes that the U.S. immigration system, especially after 9/11, does not look at immigrants as individual people. Tarek's arrest cause panic in Zainab, who's certain he will be deported and fears that if she visits him she too will be arrested. His arrest also brings his mother Mouna (Haim Abbass) to New York. She ends up staying at Walter's apartment and begins to develop an unexpected relationship with him. But her presence is tied to her son, and if he is deported, she too will leave the U.S.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor (Overture Films)

TAREK : "This is not fair, I am not a criminal, what do they think, I'm a terrorist?"

Walter doesn't know how to express his outrage at Tarek's arrest. No one at the detention center is very helpful, and even a lawyer Walter hires can't seem to do much to fight the system. In a response very much scaled to Walter's personality, he yells at the detention center guards, telling them that Tarek is a good man and that simple fact should count for something.

THOMAS McCARTHY : "Walter's flawed, and he has his quirks for sure. But I think he has a sense of decency. What I like about that moment is that a lot of time people get angry in movies and they do it in a really dramatic, heroic way. Walter is very awkward and what he does is not & completely thought out but most of us are not used to blowing our tops in public, especially not Walter. I think sometimes reducing it to such a simple idea -- that Tarek is a good man -- some people would say that's na & iuml;ve or irresponsible. Maybe not, maybe there's something to be learned and gained from that." &

Walter's outrage is not only at the injustice Tarek is experiencing but it is also at the fact that he feels his government has let him down and ignored the ideals on which it was founded. McCarthy asks the audience to invest in these characters as human beings before introducing the issue of immigration.

THOMAS McCARTHY : "Let's remember that it's a human issue and not a political issue. I feel like politicians and certain groups want to reduce everything to an us and them sort of black and white issue, and I think that's a dangerous way to proceed."

That's because life isn't black and white, and The Visitor tries to show us the subtle shadings of gray. Tarek is processed through the U.S. immigration system as a number, but he passes through Walter's life as a real person, even as a friend.

TAREK : "Don't forget me."

The Visitor (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) presents a rich, complex world where people connect in unexpected ways. It is a fitting follow up to the themes McCarthy covered in The Station Agent.

Companion viewing: The Station Agent, Six Feet Under (First Season), Paradise Now, The Syrian Bride