If I told you The Visitor reamed out our government for its shameful treatment of illegal immigrants, you’d say, “stop preaching.” If I told you The Visitor focused on one man, a shy, sixtyish college professor who comes out of his shell, you’d say, who wants to see that? And yet The Visitor, featuring an award-caliber performance by Richard Jenkins as the prof, is a heartfelt human drama that sneaks up and floors you. In only his second film as writer and director, following his acclaimed 2003 debut with The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy is already that rare talent who can work in miniature to reveal major truths. Like his acting — you just saw him on the last season of The Wire as a Jayson Blair-like journalist — McCarthy is attuned to the nuances of behavior. Just watch Jenkins as Walter Vale, a widower who seems to move through life in a trance. We meet Walter as he leaves his safe, dull perch teaching global economics at a Connecticut college and travels to Manhattan to present a paper at an academic convention. At a barely used apartment he and his late wife kept in the city, Walter finds a beautiful young woman soaking in his bathtub. She’s Zainab (the wonderous Danai Gurira), from Senegal. Zainab and her boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman excels), a Syrian musician, aren’t squatters. They rented the place from a scam artist. After a few awkward moments, Walter invites the couple to stay till they find new digs. But it’s Walter who finds something — himself. When Tarek, who gives the uptight Walter lessons on the African drum, is arrested, Walter tries to intercede with U.S. Immigration. He even provides comfort for Tarek’s distraught mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who arrives from Detroit.
McCarthy could have made his film a moral treatise about post-9/11 immigration abuses. Instead, he lets issues present themselves through personal interaction. Walter and Mouna, beautifully played by Abbass, open up to each other in funny and touching ways. When Mouna notices that Walter has changed his eyeglasses to something more modern, the small, preciseoment speaks volumes. The same goes for the movie. McCarthy opens up a whole world for us on the face of his leading actor. You’ve seen Jenkins before — as the ghost father on Six Feet Under, the gay FBI agent in Flirting With Disaster, the bored shrink in There’s Something About Mary. Now it’s time to remember his name. This is the role of his career, and Jenkins doesn’t tackle it (that would be the obvious choice of a lesser actor), instead he wears it like a second skin. After decades of honing his craft in film and on stage at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company, Jenkins brings a lifetime of experience to bear on this character. The last sight of Walter — he’s in a subway banging his drum with a fiercehythm that articulates his rage — is indelible. In The Visitor, Jenkins delivers a master class in acting. Oscar, take note.