"The Visitor" is a warm and tender tale of human connection.
"The Visitor," the opening night presentation of the 2008 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, is a delicate, human reminder of why independent films matter.
After a life full of music, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is living in chilly silence. He pecks out hesitant notes on the Steinway that belonged to his late wife, a concert pianist, but as his keyboard instructor observes, "learning an instrument at your age is difficult, especially if you don't possess a natural gift for it." The Connecticut economics professor moves through the paces of his day like a clockwork robot with a metronome heart.
But when he encounters a young immigrant couple inhabiting his rarely used New York City apartment, the antisocial teacher begins to open himself up to a life lived with feeling. Bonding with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira, a 2001 Macalester College grad), illegals who were duped by a real-estate scammer, Walter warms as Tarek teaches him to play West African drums.
Their burgeoning friendship is ripped apart when Tarek is arrested and imprisoned in a detention center. Walter energetically takes up his new friend's legal case and grows close to Tarek's mother, Mouna (a touching Hiam Abbass), with a tenderness long missing from his existence.
Like director Tom McCarthy's well-received debut, "The Station Agent," "The Visitor" is an insightful, intriguingly cast film about relationships that spring into being unexpectedly and reveal the character of people accustomed to isolation. Where "Station Agent" put short-statured actor Peter Dinklage in the lead, "Visitor" star Jenkins is an A-list character actor taking his first starring role.
He's been vivid in many supporting roles -- he's the go-to guy for crusty doctors and lawyers -- and he plays the somber Walter with a winning, slowly melting stoicism. When he discovers his unexpected affinity for the two young Muslims sleeping in his place, the prospect of rendering them homeless taps this guarded, vulnerable man's long-neglected wellspring of compassion.
That decision doesn't grant Walter a wholesale Hollywood-style conversion (he still drinks wine at every meal, including breakfast) but it returns him to the human orbit after a long exile. It's a subtle shift of axis that Jenkins renders with understatement.
Sleiman gives Tarek a warmth and sincerity that validates Walter's tentative trust. Gurira is splendid as the lovely, sullen jewelry maker orphaned by her boyfriend's incarceration. Abbass makes a character that might have been a romantic contrivance in clumsier hands into a credible, rounded older woman.
A fair amount of the film's screen time is devoted to immigration issues as Walter visits Tarek in confinement, but "The Visitor" is not a deportation drama. It's more concerned with the various kinds of isolation its four main characters contend with; incarceration is only the most concrete. As they transcend their superficial differences to form a tiny, short-lived community, "The Visitor" makes its points with rare skill and grace.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186