This powerful little film begins with a widowed university lecturer, Walter Vale,living in Connecticut and sleepwalking through his safe and comfortable life. The lights have gone out for him: he takes no risks, he is alone and seemingly half asleep. He wears a tie and clutches an anaesthetising glass of red wine He recycles old lecture notes, is not engaged with students and makes half hearted attempts at learning the piano in an effort to hold onto something of his deceased pianist wife. Reluctantly he goes to New York to present a paper and finds that unbeknown to him, his fusty Manhattan apartment has been illegally rented to Tarek, a Syrian drummer and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. In a moment of uncharacteristic compassion Walter allows the couple to stay for a few days and his life is never the same again.
Of course it is all a little predictable, or it could have been had not the direction and writing (both by Thomas McCarthy) been so beautifully crafted.Walter is captivated by Tarek's drumming, and a friendship develops between the men, despite Zainab's caution and reserve. Tarek is arrested and imprisoned as an illegal immigrant, and his widowed mother Mouna, also an illegal immigrant, enters the story. A gentle love begins to develop between Walter and Mouna as, simultaneously, warmth and respect also flower between Mouna and Zainab across barriers of culture and age. The characters are slowly but exquisitely drawn. Casting has been superb and the acting from all the principals flawless. The movie might have ended as a feel good love story, but McCarthy opts instead for his characters to be faced with hard decisions and choices which reflect their depth as people. He gives us an ending which, though poignant, is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.
I found it easy to identify with Walter, and all the other characters are likeable people. Perhaps this is the reason I left the movie so profoundly moved. Or perhaps I need to follow my own advice and reflect on the polarities in the movie: beginning /ending; provincial/urban; scripted/free; thought/feeling; legal/illegal; East/West; formal/informal; young/old... and see that, as in every case where a narrative grabs our attention, it is becuse the polarities of the movie so closely mirror those of our own lives.
The key to this movie lies in the title. Who is The Visitor? Who is being visited? McCarthy has an admirably light touch with his symbolism but there is a telling little encounter when Walter takes Mouna to see the prison where Tarek is held. "It doesn't look like a prison", says Mouna. "No", replies Walter, "I think that's the point." All the characters in the film are in prison, especially Walter, but their places of incarceration, especially Walter's, don't look like prisons. In another telling little metaphorical vignette, Walter reveals that although he has seen the Statue of Liberty countless times he has never been inside it. The film opens with the shot of a door, and a vistor ringing a doorbell. Many of the scenes are shot through doorways, with the framing visible: we are looking from the outside into people's restricted lives. People move in and through doorways: all the characters visit each other - enter each other's prisons for a brief spell, but ultimately all of them must leave and return to another life. Great use is made of light and shadow, with its symbolism of known and unknown. Colour is carefully chosen: The ugly squat prison sits in the centre of the film -starkly red and white in an otherwise autumnal palette - as a visual symbol of the huge inner and outer forces which bind all the characters individually. This metaphor of imprisonment works at all sorts of levels in the film, from the personal and psychological to the political. On the grandest scale, post 9/11 America itself has become a sort of prison, as the process of protecting Freedom actually curtails freedom and drives away the "visitors" - those from outside who bring new perspectives and new hope, and whose very presence is the essence of the American Dream.
The one character in the film who is really free is Tarek, and all the other characters in the film are defined by their relationship to him. "To play the drums", Tarek tells Walter, "you have to stop thinking". It is his freedom - from time and from the rules of the subway - which cause his imprisonment. In his friendship with Tarek, Walter is freed. He sells his wife's piano. His tie disappears and so does the wine glass. The prison of thought he has built for himself crumbles and we last see him at a subway station, joyfully -and angrily -playing Tarek's drum. He is awake and free.