Photo: Groundswell Productions
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a man in need of a midlife crisis. Stuck in a professional rut as an academic and mourning the death of his wife, he sleepwalks through his days—until he's jolted awake when he stops by his little-used New York apartment and finds a young immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), staying there illicitly. To everyone's surprise, the trio cautiously begins to form a contented household: Walter latches onto his new roommmates like a shy little brother, Tarek teaches him to play the djembe. But when Tarek is detained on a visa violation and drops into a pitiless bureaucratic void, his new American friend is virtually powerless to help.
The basic outline of The Visitor sounds formulaic: Uptight white guy loosens up with the help of some attractive, kindhearted, darker-skinned foreigners—including Tarek's luminous mom, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). But there's nothing schematic about the quietly affecting second feature by writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), who comments on post-9/11 immigration policy without sacrificing subtle characterizations and finely tuned dialogue. And Jenkins (Six Feet Under), a redoubtable character actor in a rare lead role, is superb as the benumbed widower whose emotional nerve endings come tingling back to life.