The director Thomas McCarthy clearly is interested in people who hold the world at arm’s length, who wallow in a convenient kind of misanthropy, and who are inexorably touched by a friendship with an unlikely stranger. His message sounds corny—heck, it’s a hair’s breath away from “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”—but he manages to reveal it in surprising, touching ways. In The Station Agent, it was Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage), a lonely train fanatic, who was befriended by two wounded souls, the eager-to-please Bobby Cannavale and the sexy, but unhinged Patricia Clarkson.
In The Visitor, Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an emotionally blunted university professor who is forced to attend a conference in New York, where he keeps an apartment. He is surprised to find a couple of illegal immigrants living in his home. At first, he kicks them out. Then realizing they have no place to go—and touched by their good manners and genuine contrition—he lets them stay with him. Zainab (Danai Gurira), the female half of the couple, who is West African, is embarrassed and holds Walter at arm’s length. But her boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who is Syrian, is a cheerful optimist—the kind of man who expects the best of others—and he slowly ingratiates Walter into his life, even teaching him how to play the drums. (The drums in this film are a metaphor for the sensual pleasures of life—in the early stages of the film Walter is dutifully taking piano lessons. As a cellist, I take a bit of umbrage, but I get it. . .). Just when Walter, a widower, is truly reveling in this new friendship, Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation. Enter Tarek’s beautiful mother (Hiam Abbass), who has come to help her son. It’s here that the film takes a subtly political turn—Walter and the mother are confronted with dehumanizing bureaucracy—but McCarthy still manages to stay focused on his primary, humanistic concerns. As for Jenkins, a character actor whom I have loved over the years (he’s probably best known for playing the dead father in Six Feet Under), he really rises to the occasion here, never overplaying Walter’s repression or his eventual awakening to the possibilities of life. Here’s hoping that voters don’t forget about him—or this perfectly calibrated gem of a film—come Oscar season.