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The Visitor Is Gone, But Not Forgotten

Jun 4, 2008
This review contains spoilers.

Few films come along to express the emotional trauma and excitement of loss. The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, is an extraordinary look at life from the perspective of an aging widower, who has simply given up.

When we first meet Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), he is alone. He takes piano lessons. A task best suited for youngsters, Walter can't seem to get the hang of playing because he lacks the effort, so he fires every teacher he has. This effort, as the audience finds out, is a lonely attempt to connect to his late wife, a concert pianist. Later, we find he teaches at a college in Connecticut, but teaching is just a tedious word used to describe Walter's daily routin. Walter meanders on in his mundane life as an economics professor and seems to embody just a shell of a person, lacking real enjoyment, motivation, or ambition. When asked about going to present a paper he co-authored at NYU, he tells a colleague he is working on his fourth book, but the truth is, he doesn't want to go because he merely read the paper and would rather continue on his path of least resistance.

Walter's emotions seem indifferent toward everything and everyone around him. He does not create a syllabus for his only class, nor does he care to read anyone's paper. He tells people he's busy and close to finishing his book, but goes home, cooks dinner, and has a glass of red wine, as if simply to numb himself further.

Ultimately, he must go to NYU to present his co-authored paper at a colloquium. As Walter is forced to go back to the New York City home he used to share with his wife, his life would change.

Walter finds his Manhattan apartment rented, without his knowledge, to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his girlfriend who sells hand-made jewelry on the New York City street flea markets--both are illegal immigrants in the United States. Walter's lack of reaction is common throughout the film. It is Tarek who suggests him and his girlfriend leave the apartment and will pay for rent if he wants it, but in a glimmer moment of compassion, Walter allows the couple to stay.

Through the course of the following days, Walter begins his friendship with Terak and Zainab. Terak begins to teach Walter the drums, an instrument which Walter seems to pour his heart and soul into--and he's actually good at it. They play for a variety of audiences, and we can see for the first time, Walter is alive again.

An unfortunate incident, through no fault of his own, lands Terak in jail, and ultimately, in immigration detention. Walter visits his friend daily, and Zainab moves out of Walter's Manhattan apartment. In the hard look at immigration policy in the United States, Tom McCarthy has us weeping for justice and fairness. Terak has done nothing wrong, so would he have to leave the country, back to Syria?

Teraks mother, Mouna Khalil (Hiam Abbass), arrives at Walter's home in Manhattan. She is a lovely woman with a calm voice. Walter tells her that they share the house and that her son is in detention. Because she is an illegal immigrant herself, Mouna cannot visit her son, thus Walter becomes her proxy and a fledgling love begins between Mouna and Walter. Through the last few moments of the film, Walter's life dramatically changes. His heart aches as he unleashes his emotions toward the immigration officers when Terak is no longer at the facility. He embraces Mouna in the cab ride home, sharing the pain as if it were his son that had gone missing, though his real son lives in London.

In the end, Walter has transformed his empty life into something more meaningful. He takes a leave of absence from his Connecticut school, and continues to play the drums on the New York City subway platforms. What a strange site it must be to watch and old man playing drums. The "visitor" has been Walter, Mouna, Terak, and Zainab, as each has visited us and gone their separate ways--a temporary point in our lives gone, but not forgotten.
About the Author
Eddie Phanichkul is a writer from southern California. He writes film reviews and offers analytical content on his website www.TakingStuffApart.com . Get paid to blog on TakingStuffApart.com
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