3 Stars - Challenging

The obvious agenda in Thomas McCarthy’s film “The Visitor” is critiquing the United States government’s immigration policy and practice.  As both director and writer, McCarthy weaves a depressing tale that grieves over a constellation of sorrows, from the inhumanity with which illegal aliens are treated to the emptiness the death of a spouse can create.   In an attempt to find redemption and hope, little is offered except for the rhythmic beat of the drum and the fleeting moments of human connection.

The ensemble cast portrays the tale with dignity.  Contrasted with the indifference of the immigration officers, McCarthy captures the courage with which these four human beings are caught within impossible circumstances yet find their way with increasing honor and self-respect.

Similar to the theme of “American Beauty” where Lester Burnham is living an empty life, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an economics professor who has lost his wife and has emptied his life.  As an accomplished classical pianist, Walter’s wife not only brought companionship and family to Walter, but also the creative joy such an artist brings.  In an attempt to regain what he lost, Walter is taking lessons on the piano but has no soul for the music and no joy in his teaching.

Forced to go to a conference in New York City to present a paper he coauthored but didn’t really write, Walter returns to an apartment he owns only to find a young couple living there.  Scammed by a person who rented it to them, Tarek Kahlil (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Guirira) are illegal aliens from Syria and Senegal. Tarek is a jazz musician playing an African drum and Zainab is an artist who creates jewelry to sell on the streets.  Embarrassed when the two discover that they have been living illegally in Walter’s apartment, they quickly gather their things to leave.  But when Walter realizes they have nowhere to go, he graciously offers to allow them to stay until they find their own place.  It is in this unlikely joining of lives that the story resides.

The fourth member of the ensemble is Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass).  When her husband was killed in Syria, Mouna brought Tarek as a young boy to Michigan seeking asylum.  She was denied and told she must return to Syria.  She ignored the decision because she was told the government didn’t really enforce such decisions.  But the 9/11 attacks changed this and Mouna comes to New York when she doesn’t hear from him for five days.  A poised and beautiful woman, her entry into Walter’s life opens some doors that have long been closed in both of them.

We won’t tell how all of this works together, but it is a nuanced tale worthy of all who experience it.


  1. Often the plight of illegal aliens is told from the perspective of people who come from Mexico.  In this story, the people are from war-torn Syria and Senegal.  How did this change in nationality affect your response to the film?
  2. The boundaries of a nation are there to protect its citizens militarily and economically. But these concerns should not take precedence over the care of people.  In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, the Bible says: “33 When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  What do you think is the solution to this international reality?
  3. The rhythm of the drum and the beauty of a woman are both used to open Walter’s closed and grieving heart.  What have you found helpful to open your heart when you have experienced loss or become depressed?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 3 STARS, CHALLENGING.