“The Visitor” – A Film Reflection

“In a world of six billion people it only takes one to change your life.”
the visitorThis is the slugline for this movie directed by Tom McCarthy.  And it drew me in because I know it’s true.

Also, I love the kind of movies that fly under the radar.  It’s like the way I love hole-in-the-wall restaurants with excellent cuisine.

Richard Jenkins

Richard Jenkins, a consummate character actor since the 1970’s, plays the lead role as Walter Vale.  Recently widowed, he is haunted by the loss of his wife.  He has that deer-in-the-headlights look of someone who hasn’t the slightest idea what to do now.

He’s an economics professor at a Connecticut university.  Therefore, he’s been doing it for so long he sets his body on cruise control while his soul yearns for some greater adventure.


In the opening scene he waits for a seasoned piano teacher to transform him into a brilliant pianist like his wife. Finally, it becomes plain that the tutor cannot do this. As she’s leaving he tells her he’s decided against further lessons. She turns to ask him, “Mr. Vale, how many teachers have you had before me?”

“Four,”he replies.

“Mr. Vale,”she says, “Sometimes those of us who do not have natural musical talent may choose to give up trying. If and when you do, and this is not to hurt your feelings, I would like to buy your piano.”

The looks they exchange at this point seem pivotal to the film. It’s a glimpse into who Walter is at his inner core. And we see he is about to embark upon an interesting adventure, albeit “kicking and screaming,” just a little bit.

Then, the next day, when his department head tells him that Walter needs to deliver a paper at a conference in New York City, Walter balks.  But there is no wiggling out of it.


It so happens that Walter and his wife kept an apartment in NYC.  So when he arrives with his overnight suitcase, he is shocked to discover that a young Muslim couple have taken residence there. Before he realizes that the apartment is rightfully Vale’s, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) a young drummer from Syria, fiercely protects his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) who is taking a bath when Walter first encounters her.

When the couple realize that they have been the victims of a rental scam, they gracefully bow out, packing their belongings and thanking Walter profusely for his understanding.

In the wake of the couple’s absence, Walter contemplates the thundering silence. When he spots a framed portrait of Zainab and Tarek on a table, he grabs it and hurries to find them down the block where they are trying to figure out where to go. Walter tells them that until they find someplace to stay they can stay at his apartment.

Drum Circle

Richard Jenkins honed his mastery of acting over decades.  In this role he is not pitiable nor maudlin. He’s more like a child learning his new options in life. Consequently, during a lunch break at the economics conference one day he is drawn to a drum circle in Central Park.  There he gets lost in the rhythms.

In the evening he returns home to find Tarek playing his African drum. In deference to his “landlord,” Tarek immediately stops, and begins to put the drum away.

“Don’t stop,”Walter tells him. “You can practice all you like.”

the visitor
Here again is a pivotal point in the film when the two men begin to bond, and Tarek takes Walter under his wing to teach him how to drum.


One day Tarek is arrested in the subway.  He is going to be deported. Regrettably, Walter realizes that both Tarek and Zainab are “illegals.”

Tarek’s incarceration coincides with the arrival of his mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) from Michigan. Walter and Mouna begin a gentle and bittersweet love affair.

This film has its lovely and surprising moments. I laughed when Walter’s piano was carried out of his house. He sold it to the ecstatic piano teacher.

But more than that, a black veil lifts from Walter’s grieving spirit to reveal a joy in music and in unexpected friendships.

If you like thoughtful and provocative movies with excellent acting, and music, then I believe you’ll enjoy this one very much. After all, in 2008 Richard Jenkins was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in this film.

This film will help viewers reach an understanding that humans are human, no matter the race, and no matter the religion.


Patty Mooney is a Vice President and Video Producer at San Diego’s award-winning video production company, Crystal Pyramid Productions.