Film Review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Young Alumni Association The Visitor.

How would you respond if you came home to find illegal immigrants living in your apartment?

In The Visitor, that’s the big surprise that changes the life of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). When Walter, an economics professor from Connecticut, visits New York for a conference on developing nations, he returns to his long-neglected apartment only to discover two illegal immigrants living there.

Believing they’ve been placed in a legitimate rental, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a percussionist from Syria, and his jewelry-making, Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), are caught by surprise. And at first, Walter, a despondent widower, just wants them to get out of his home. But after all of the shouting and embarrassment, he strikes up a tense friendship with his unexpected guests. The contagious, joyous rhythms that Tarek drums on his djembe reflect his warm-hearted enthusiasm for life, and they reinvigorate Walter’s love for music. Zainab, far more wary of Walter’s friendship, slowly lets down her guard, revealing herself to be a woman of deep sadness and powerful emotion.

But when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation, Walter must reassess his priorities and decide how best he can help the desperate man, his distraught girlfriend, and an unexpected visitor — Tarek’s beautiful, strong-willed mother Mouna.

Writer-director Thomas McCarthy seems drawn to these tales of lonely, sad men who are redeemed by community. His first feature, The Station Agent, remains one of the most underrated, enjoyable independent films of the last decade. The Visitor recalls Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, but without any of the mean-spirited humor that soured that film. McCarthy is a fantastic storyteller, but his greatest strength is in the way he gathers great actors and gives them plenty of room to work. As with the cast of The Station Agent, McCarthy finds remarkable chemistry between Jenkins, Slieman, Gurira, and Abbas, making even the quietest moments interesting.

Walter is a man of few words, but Jenkins fills his tense silences with eloquent expression. A veteran of Coen brothers films and HBO’s Six Feet Under, Jenkins has been a scene-stealing character actor for many years. His first leading role is an award-worthy turn.

The film has two unfortunate weaknesses: Its focus on the mistreatment of detainees in post-9/11 America nearly disrupts the story’s delicate character development with a sense of urgent relevance. And both Tarek and Mouna seem a little too perfect, too likeable, to exist in the same world as a character as complicated as Walter.

But these are minor quibbles about what is ultimately an inspiring, joyful experience. Audiences are likely to agree that The Visitor is the most enjoyable American movie yet released in 2008. It’s a rare treasure, alive with characters you’ll never forget, and it is likely to influence hearts and minds with its compassionate portrayal of desperate people who came to America in desperate hope. Go see it on a Friday night, and take your friends it will lift your spirits and send you into the weekend with lively African rhythms ringing in your ears.

Jeffrey Overstreet (jeffreyo@spu.edu) is a contributing editor for SPU's Response magazine, an award-winning film critic at LookingCloser.org and Christianity Today, and author of Through a Screen Darkly and Auralia's Colors.