Some films click from the moment they’re cast, and that is certainly the case with “The Visitor,” writer-director Tom McCarthy’s first feature since his popular “The Station Agent,” and a perfect vehicle for Richard Jenkins. An actor whose face is far better known than his name, Jenkins plays McCarthy’s transfigured hero to a tee. A combination immigrant/resurrection tale, “Visitor” tilts toward the soulful rather than the political, and could be this year’s humanistic indie hit.
Jenkins, who has worked for everyone from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, from the Farrelly brothers to the Coen brothers, plays Walter Vale — widower, economics professor and the ne plus ultra of boring white men. When he reluctantly returns to Gotham to give a talk at NYU, he finds two immigrants living in his little-used Manhattan apartment: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), illegals who were scammed into renting Walter’s usually vacant pad.
We half expect a grand gesture from Walter, but McCarthy makes us wait: It isn’t until Tarek and Zainab are packed and on the street that Walter tells them to return and stay. And so begins an ostensibly short-term, ad hoc family, with the gregarious Tarek acting as bridge between the taciturn Walter and the always wary Zainab.
Walter’s academic life is as empty as his bed, and he engages with real life as a guest; the thrust of “The Visitor” is his re-acquaintance with an emigre city and country that have changed without him noticing.
Tarek teaches him African drumming, and Walter begins frequenting the club where Tarek plays. Eventually the two join a drum circle in Central Park, Walter’s tweeds contrasting with all the T-shirts and bandanas. It’s a world Walter has never known, and his transformation is gradual but definitive — Jenkins awakens his character’s soul.
When Tarek is arrested and thrown into a corporate-run alien detention center, Walter becomes the only conduit between Tarek and the outside world, as well as Tarek’s only chance for freedom. Walter’s once-tenuous commitment to the real world now reaches the point of no return.
At this moment in the film, as Tarek disappears into the maw of Homeland Security and his mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives to find her son, the dynamics of the film shift and it becomes a bit less absorbing, mostly because Walter has already made his transformation.
McCarthy’s sense of outrage about the U.S. government’s martinet emigre policies become a bit too obvious, the camera focusing on images of the Statue of Liberty or the multilingual papers found on Queens newsstands. He needn’t have been so obvious, but it appears he doesn’t quite know how to get out of the story, either. Luckily, Jenkins has hooked us early and reels us in like fish.