The Visitor
Reviewed by Isabelle Dupuis

Produced by Mary Jane Skalsky, Omar Amanat, Michael London, Jeff Skoll, Ricky Strauss and Chris Salvatera; written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, cinematography by Oliver Bokelberg; production design by John Paino; costumes by Melissa Toth; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Jan A.P.Kaczmarek; starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass. Color. 103 mins. Distributed by Overture Films

The Visitor is a film about accidental encounters and life-changing incidents. Although its bold ambition is to examine the personal repercussions of the U.S. government’s increasingly stringent crackdown on illegal immigration in the post-9/11 era, in the end, it is best remembered for its portrayal of a man who gradually opens up to the world and finds new meaning in life.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a solitary college professor going though life on automatic pilot, a glass of red wine his most constant companion. A lone figure walking around a well-kept Connecticut campus, he uses an elusive book project as subterfuge to retreat from any further responsibility, no matter how minute—his diligent piano lessons the only remotely eventful facet of his life. Very reluctantly, he agrees to travel to a New York City conference to present the paper of a pregnant colleague unable to attend—a paper he admits he coauthored in name only. When he returns to the East Village apartment he and his now-deceased wife once shared, Vale discovers that a young couple has been living there for two months. Victims of a vaguely defined real-estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) dutifully pack their belongings and head out to the streets before the reluctantly kindhearted Vale invites them back in for as long as it will take to sort out their situation. Punctuated by awkward encounters in the hallway with his unexpected roommates, Vale’s life goes on as he compliantly participates in the conference.

The ice finally breaks when Tarek, a professional musician with an engaging Colgate smile, offers to give Vale a lesson on the African drums. The two quickly bond and Vale, who finds the drums a much better match than the piano, soon becomes a constant presence at Tarek’s gigs in various downtown joints. For her part the Senegalese Zainab, still visibly ill at ease with her living arrangement and with Vale’s attempts at striking up an amicable rapport, reluctantly accepts her boyfriend’s new friendship and goes about her business, selling hand-made jewelry in the city’s flea markets.

Then one day their lives tip over. Rushing home with Vale after playing in a drum circle at Central Park, Tarek is arbitrarily arrested in the subway. Having been living illegally in the U.S. since leaving his native Syria nearly a decade earlier, he is quickly carted off to an immigration detention center to await his fate. Without missing a beat, Vale hires an immigration attorney and begins a daily pilgrimage to a United Correctional Corporation detention center in a drab part of Queens, offering moral support and bringing Tarek messages from Zainab who, illegal herself, cannot risk visiting her boyfriend there.

Amidst all of this turmoil, Tarek´s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives on Vale’s apartment doorstep, five days after Tarek’s arrest, worried by his unaccustomed silence. She and Vale quickly develop a bond as they maneuver through the frustrations of the immigration system, only to have their hopes and their growing friendship shattered upon Tarek’s abrupt deportation.

Unfortunately, despite the drama unleashed in its characters’ lives and the potentially riveting political context, The Visitor appears to draw most of its inspiration from a “how to” manual on conventional dramatic build-up and emotional string-pulling—as well as the procedural guidelines of immigration enforcement.

In stark contrast to the gentility and manicured lawns of his insular academic world, Vale discovers a detention-center universe peopled by unresponsive and compassionless administrators and ruled by the inflexible “logic” of bureaucratic procedures and red tape. There are metal detectors, cameras, security procedures, and myriad other intimidating thresholds to cross before arriving in the visitors’ area. During their brief visits, facing Vale through a glass partition, Tarek brings news from the nether world of immigration enforcement—the routines, the abrupt and worrisome relocations, and the despair—each visit revealing with implacably logical progression an increasingly preoccupying practice, culminating finally with Tarek’s deportation—or “removal” as per that world’s officialese.

Yet for all the tragedy of his situation and as the irrevocability of his deportation looms nearer and nearer, Tarek’s lines ring hollow and fail to impart any real emotion. A drumming session he and Vale improvise across the plexiglass divider is a forced attempt at comic relief, and director Thomas McCarthy appears unable to resist the easy depiction of cruel and heavy-handed irony by panning—in almost every scene at the detention center—to a poster lauding the contributions of immigrants to American society, or to a mural of the Statue of Liberty.

For all its timeliness and concern with this country’s worrisome political and judicial track record since the Twin Towers fell, The Visitor is distressingly formulaic in its representation of the immigration system, barely grazing at the surface of deeper motivations and seemingly content to make due with the aggregated fragments of current immigration practices, simplistic characterizations, and a predictable denouement—all compounded by the fact that Tarek and Zainab are never fully fleshed out as characters. We know only their most basic biographical information—they seem present only to drive the immigration narrative forward and are never developed enough to elicit a depth of compassion or outrage at their situation. In so many ways, they are nothing more than neatly packaged accessories, pretexts prompting Vale’s transformation through his foreshortened relationship with them and with Mouna.

The Visitor, on one level, however, does a fair job of depicting the diversity of the Muslim world by creating characters that defy current stereotypes. Indeed, Tarek and Zainab’s lifestyle is every bit as hip as that of the average East Village dweller—Tarek enjoys the occasional glass of wine, prompting him to joke that he is a bad Muslim, and Zainab dresses on the cusp of the fashion avant-garde, while Mouna is both sophisticated and worldly. Yet, at the same time, the film relies all too often on the bold brushstrokes of type in crudely sketching out its characters. Tarek, the Middle Eastern man that he is, is naturally a shawarma eater; the immigration enforcement officers are uniformly blank-faced and stubbornly unhelpful; and as a straitlaced college professor, Vale elicits guffaws when he grooves to a Fela CD. McCarthy also feels compelled to introduce the stereotypically ignorant American in the form of a chirpy blond customer who, after learning Zainab is from Senegal, enthusiastically tells her now much she likes Cape Town. Even the Statue of Liberty does not escape unscathed—when Zainab explains that one of her favorite activities with Tarek was riding the Staten Island ferry and passing by the grand dame, the resonant symbolism the statue has held for so many immigrants and in so many films is reduced to a tired and predictable cliché.

Despite a promising performance by Danai Jekesai Gurira, Zainab remains shrouded in a cloak of frustrating mystery. Although always guarded around Vale, she opens up after Tarek is arrested just long enough to mention that she had been incarcerated in an immigration detention center for five months when she first arrived in the U.S. and was released only when the center was closed and the women and children were allowed to go—surely a story angle worthy of development given The Visitor’s focus. Unfortunately, she then promptly packs up her bags and moves in with a cousin. Of her experience at the hands of the immigration police we hear no more.

The lives and worlds of Tarek and Zainab—and of Mouna by default—are never fully explored. Although he has been living in this country for nearly a decade, Tarek gives the impression of having just gotten off the boat, probably because it was easier for the screenwriter to begin with a blank slate—a character with barely any ties, friendships, or connections to this country. There is very brief mention that Tarek´s father, a journalist, was arbitrarily detained in Syria before he died—a piece of information that seems to serve no other purpose than to prompt Mouna’s observation that America now reminds her of Syria. Beyond that, this experience seems to have left no trace in their lives.

The Visitor’s saving grace is the pitch-perfect performances by both Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass, both remarkable for their restraint, understatement, and composure. Soon enough their growing relationship replaces Tarek´s predicament in the hearts and minds of the audience. With Vale, Jenkins suggests a complexity of emotions just beneath the surface of his taciturn demeanor—suddenly set loose with the twist of a smile or the warmth of a gaze. In the final scene, as he marches through subway corridors before sitting on a bench to play the drums as the trains furiously roll by, only his subtly determined stride and tight jaw betray the rage and anguish boiling within.

Poised and elegant, Hiam Abbass’s Mouna is the conduit through which Vale confronts the layers of avoidance in his life and to whom he expresses his intention of starting anew. Beyond Mouna and Vale’s palpable physical attraction lies the deep connection that can suddenly link two people who, after enduring their own hardships and trials, and although separated by culture and circumstance, finally allow themselves to open up to another person and to the possibility of a new beginning. But most importantly, Mouna embodies—more than any other character—the anguish of illegality and of looming loss. She snaps in frustration at the understanding but harried lawyer Vale has hired, and dutifully vows to stand by the walls of the detention center as long as Tarek is inside—the remembrance of her husband’s incarceration lying imperceptibly near. Unable to visit her son because she is also illegal, Mouna strikes up a warm bond with Zainab, in turn convincingly maternal and eager to discover Tarek´s New York City life through her. Yet, when news of Tarek’s sudden deportation comes crashing in and Mouna decides to return to Syria to help him piece his life back together there—forever forsaking the possibility of returning to the United States—it is Vale´s loss that is made most palpable, while Zainab’s becomes little more than an afterthought.

One night, after Tarek’s fate has been irremediably sealed, Mouna crawls into Vale’s bed and tearfully confesses that Tarek´s doom is, in fact, her doing. During their first years in the United States, reassured by the general consensus of the time that the government didn’t care about or pursue illegal immigrants, she destroyed a government letter informing her and Tarek of their looming deportation, the procedural link and necessary document that is missing from Tarek´s case and upon which everything now rests. “After a time you forget—you think you really belong,” she laments. In so many ways, Thomas McCarthy reminds us of how little, or how much it takes, for some to suddenly become visitors in the place they call home.

Isabelle Dupuis is a writer based in New York and a longstanding member of Ocularis.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4