Tarek disappears behind the steel doors and security cameras of our new national fear.

The Visitor

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            At last, in this dismal spring, a good movie. Leading a small and gifted cast, actor Richard Jenkins infuses “The Visitor” with extraordinary subtlety and he does it in a role that most actors would have handled with exaggeration. There is no overkill here. Under the direction of Tom McCarthy who also wrote the script, Jenkins has created a character we believe.

            So conditioned are we to Hollywood theatrics that we wait for the drama of full blown redemption or transcendence. Don’t wait; just settle in with Professor Walter Vail (Richard Jenkins) and watch a real life unfold. Vail teaches one course in economics at a Connecticut college while writing his fourth book. In every respect he is uninspired, often gruff in his private solitude. He walks the campus alone and is equally alone in a group of colleagues at a meeting or in the dining hall. When he lost the wife he loved, a classical pianist, he also lost his energy and his spirit.

            When Walter goes to New York to deliver a colleague’s paper, he heads for the apartment he seldom uses and is surprised to find a couple who rented his place from a con man. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a musician from Syria, Zainab (Sanai Gurira), a jewelry maker from Senegal. Because we know Walter Vail well from the first third of the movie, we are ready to watch him warm slowly to the young couple he invites to stay on in his apartment. As he takes African drum lessons from Tarek and drums with him on the streets of New York, he comes slowly, ever so slowly, alive. Walter at last expresses himself in a place a world apart from his classroom in the college where he taught for twenty years.

            In a grim but credible example of what has happened since 9/11, Tarek becomes an innocent victim of the new immigration policy of “take your prisoner, no explanation necessary.” Tarek disappears behind the sliding steel doors and security cameras of our new national fear. Turned away repeatedly at the detention center when he asks questions, Walter, the quiet academic, hits a personal turning point, wheels around and, in the absence of a channel upward, unleashes his anger at the receptionist.

            The final third of the movie revolves around Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) who arrives from Michigan in search of her son. The relationship that develops between Mouna and Walter Vail is a beautiful story of love and compassion. Not one of the actors in this lovely movie breaks the consistent tone of private silence that Richard Jenkins and director Tom McCarthy set at the outset. In quiet resignation, Jenkins says and does everything with understatement. It took me by surprise, but if you can leave your conditioned expectations of emotional fireworks at home, you too will be rewarded with the essence of first rate acting.

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