Strangers' bond gives 'The Visitor' its strength
Predictability in a movie is bad only when the filmmakers are too lazy or too weak to move you out of the way of what you can see coming. "The Visitor" is initially predictable in the way that bad movies are predictable. The instant its downbeat central character decides to let a cheery stranger and his girlfriend live with him you know his life will light up. But the blue skies turn overcast, and the good times you could see a mile away dissipate. There is zero visibility but the promise of surprise - surprise to be moved both by what you anticipate and what you don't.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, "The Visitor" introduces Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) as a long-faced Connecticut College economics professor. His wife, a well-known classical pianist, has died, and he's miserable. He finds no comfort in the piano lessons he's started taking - even though the resplendent Marian Seldes is the instructor. Walter suffers from the sort of depression that leads to prematurely terminated office hours and a moribund intellect - his syllabus is 20 years old.
Walter is dispatched to speak at a global economics conference in Manhattan, where for years he's kept a nice, tidy apartment that, unbeknownst to him, is now occupied by a couple - Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Tarek is the happiest Syrian in the world. Zainab is from Senegal, and her face broadcasts a network's worth of wariness. They're both beautiful. How they moved into Walter's home is complicated and vague at the same time. But they apologize, pack up, and leave.
I knew I liked this movie when a single cut shows Tarek and Zainab back in Walter's apartment. McCarthy could have shown us Walter changing his mind and the three of them trudging back to his place. But the vagueness of their return is actually beautiful in its simplicity. It says a lot without the characters having to say anything. Tarek plays the African drum in the park and in restaurants as part of a band, and in a matter of a few scenes, the professor becomes a student of rhythm. The salubrious bond between the two men is as you expect: The white American discovers he has a soul, the Arab guy keeps his temporary home. But when Tarek is arrested and detained at a facility in Queens, "The Visitor" turns another emotional corner, blindsiding the characters and us.
This is a melodrama whose dam respectfully refuses breaks. Partly that's because McCarthy, whose previous movie was "The Station Agent" (2003), trusts his human instincts. The perceptive script can get the movie only so far. A lot of "The Visitor" lives on the actors' faces, the way, say, Sleiman's smile (it's a dentist's dream) gradually flat-lines. When Zainab laughs on a ferry to Staten Island your heart melts because you didn't think that serious woman had it in her.
Jenkins, meanwhile, brings all his saltiness and comic solemnity to bear on this film. The character and the actor come to life. Although Jenkins is best known for the seasons he spent as the dead patriarch on "Six Feet Under," for years he's been the movies' best-kept secret. I'm reluctant to report that, based on how wonderful he is here, I'll have to share him with the rest of world.
At some point, Hiam Abbass sweeps into the film as Tarek's mother, and she and Jenkins do some exquisite watching and listening together. She's as good as he is, gracefully managing the rage and romance and remorse that float to the movie's surface.
In a sense, "The Visitor" is about the global econ professor bonding with the illegals, but the movie's not a tract. It's really about how people can come into our lives, change them, and leave. This is a film of our times - paranoid, heartbroken, disillusioned - and the rare recent American movie whose characters react the way actual people might. It also draws a crucial distinction between good expectations and bad. Movies are predictable. Life is not.