Film review: The Visitor


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, February 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a heartwarming movie about the joys of welcoming new people into our community.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: The Visitor is a quiet, touching film about the friendship between an economics professor and a Syrian immigrant. It presents an interesting counterpoint to a better-known 2008 movie that also tackled the subject of immigration: Gran Torino.

Stylistically, there’s little parallel to draw between the two movies. Unassuming and reflective, The Visitor is as inoffensive as Gran Torino was provocative. It did earn a PG-13 for a smattering of profanity, but that comes nowhere near the racist verbal acrobatics Clint Eastwood employed. And while Eastwood’s crowd-pleaser gave us Walt Kowalski, a blue-collar, foul-mouthed bigot, The Visitor offers up the crisply academic but equally isolated Dr. Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins).

CLIP: I haven’t done any real work in a very long time. I pretend. Pretend that I’m busy, that I’m working. I’m not doing anything.

Like Walt, Walter believes he has a grasp on the effects of immigration in the United States. But factory-worker Walt held a reactionary perspective that painted all his foreign-born neighbors as lazy, parasitic invaders. Walter, on the other hand, starts with an Ivory Tower-approved, liberal outlook. His specialty is economic globalization, and we get the sense that he could hold his own discussing immigration policy at any D.C. cocktail party. But he has no real interest in the subject. In fact, he has little interest in anything because, just like Eastwood’s character, losing his wife has made him withdraw to such a point that he no longer connects with anyone, not even his son.

Then Walter is called upon to go to New York to present a paper for a bedridden colleague. When he arrives at the apartment he has kept there for years, he discovers two illegal immigrants living in it. Tarek and Zainab (played by Danai Gurira, who many will recognize from the Oscar-nominated superhero hit, Black Panther) believed they had legitimately rented the place. But they soon discover they are victims of a housing scam. Acting out of a need he doesn’t fully understand, Walter allows the pair to stay until they work out other living arrangements.

CLIP: Sorry, that was my mother. If I don’t call her every day, she thinks something happened to me. I’ll have a bit thanks. You sure you won’t have some? I don’t drink. She’s a good Muslim. I’m a bad one. Are you finished? Yes, can I help you? Please, it’s the least I can do. Well, thank you for dinner, it was very good. You’re welcome. So what’s the conference about? Economic growth in developing nations. That’s us–Syria, Senegal! So, have you written some books? Three and I’m working on a fourth. Four books? Wow, that’s great. My father was a writer, a journalist. Is he still writing? No, he died before we left Syria. Almost nine years ago. I’m sorry. Tarek, it’s 8:30. I have to go; I have a gig. Walter, you can come if you want.

Despite their differences, Tarek and Walter become fast friends. Not only does Walter find an extended family of sorts, but he also discovers, under Tarek’s tutelage, a new passion for drums. Jenkins’ character, like Eastwood’s, is freed by the joy of receiving affection from someone who offers it more easily than anyone in his own circle of acquaintances. Walter may have written books on the integration of foreigners into our own culture, but he doesn’t really understand the experience. That is until he’s accepted with wide grins into a tribal drumming session in Central Park. It’s one of the movie’s funniest and most uplifting scenes.

CLIP: Sounded good, Walter. Sorry. No, don’t be sorry, that’s what it’s there for. I was lying on my bed listening to music and I was like, what’s that crazy rhythm I’m hearing. Just put your feet flat on the ground. Walter, I know you’re a very smart man, but with a drum you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up, OK? OK. Now give it a couple of bangs. Not so hard. You’re not angry at it. OK. I’m sorry. Better. Did you think? No. Good. Come on. Follow me.

Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes of The Visitor devolve into political exposition. When Walter suddenly makes a labored speech that doesn’t at all square with the tentative but genuine personality we’ve gotten to know, it becomes clear that writer/director Thomas McCarthy opposes any immigration policy that takes border security seriously. McCarthy may in the end make the mistake of assuming personal experience trumps all in matters of public policy. But he still gives spiritually minded viewers a heartwarming movie that illustrates the joys of welcoming new people into our community.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


(Photo/The Visitor)

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