In a world of six billion people, it only takes one to change your life. In actor and filmmaker Tom McCarthy’s follow-up to his award winning directorial debut The Station Agent, Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) stars as a disillusioned Connecticut economics professor whose life is transformed by a chance encounter in New York City.
Sixty-two-year-old Walter Vale (Jenkins) is sleepwalking through his life. Having lost his passion for teaching and writing, he fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his college sends him to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him.
Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The instrument’s exuberant rhythms revitalize Walter’s faltering spirit and open his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. As the friendship between the two men deepens, the differences in culture, age and temperament fall away.
After being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation. As his situation turns desperate, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. When Tarek’s beautiful mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly in search of her son, the professor’s personal commitment develops into an unlikely romance.
And it’s through these new found connections with these virtual strangers that Walter is awakened to a new world and a new life.
I highly recommend this movie (I think you can still find it in the RedBox). It deals with the self-discovery of a middle-aged man who, in the monotony of life and grief of lost, has lost his zest for life. It also, perhaps more poignantly, expresses the complications of immigration (primarily illegal).
Interestingly enough, Walter Vale, who teaches and international economics class, is somewhat ignorant of the realties of the internationals that are living in his NY apartment. Regardless of all of his head knowledge he is unequipped to, in real life, deal with the complications of international economics and their political and social ramifications.
In an interesting scene we see Walter in the immigration containment center (Jail) trying to speak with Tarek. In the background everyone working in the center is African-American. The irony here is thick, Tarek and other Arabs are being held captive, physically by African-Americans, but the reality is those African-Americans are doing their job, they are being used to hold Arabs. Both minority groups are pawns in a game that is much bigger than they are.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away. Go watch the film, it will both lift your spirits and challenges your preconceptions about our Arab brothers and sisters. If you want some more commentary on The Visitor listen to this NPR commentary from back when the movie was released.