The not-so subliminal message about life being fair versus breaking the law isn’t enough to carry a film purporting to be a character-driven drama.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a professor at a reputable college, but he seems to be going through the expected motions in his mid life rather than actually living it. He receives a renewed glimpse of life’s struggles when he encounters a couple illegally staying in his New York apartment, a Syrian drummer named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira). After sorting out the misunderstanding (and having no other connection to the living to speak of), Walter befriends the couple and even learns to play the drum, but a brief encounter in a subway changes everything when Tarek is taken away as an illegal alien.
The character of Walter is a zombie-like husk before he meets a youthful, vibrant couple doing what they love and getting by as best they can. Whereas Walter has plenty of money and can do whatever he likes, he never thinks about how quickly all of it could go away or how he would feel if that very thing happened to someone else that he cared about. The Visitor isn’t a very long film, and while it makes some great points about human interaction, it takes too long to get there and instead spends too much time on what should have been a footnote.
In an effort to preserve the plot, I won’t discuss some details here. Walter isn’t over the hill yet, but he can easily see retirement from where he is and, when we first meet him, he seems to have one foot in the grave mentally anyway. Meeting Tarek gives Walter not only a new outlook on life but a new hobby as well: playing the drum. Embracing these new things preserves Walter but dooms Tarek in one moment of misunderstanding. It’s after this moment that suddenly the film is hijacked by pointing out that “secret” government detention centers are finally doing the job that was ignored years before 9/11, regulating illegal immigrants.
The suggestion is that this “tragedy” could happen to anyone or that such things shouldn’t happen in America, but the reality isn’t any worse than a cop writing a speeding ticket or police keeping a murder suspect behind bars. Tarek may or may not have known he was in the country illegally, and while people throughout the world wish they could come to America to make their way and take advantage of its opportunities, there are still laws and legal channels. The revelation by Walter that “it’s not fair” that his friend was taken away could just be Walter talking about his own selfish needs, but this elevated subplot is far too skewed to point fingers at faceless government workers rather than look at the facts.
Why this is significant is because it relegates Walter practically to the point of being an observer, a physical placeholder for the audience. Between the time Tarek is nicked and that subplot is resolved, the story drags its feet, only fully coming back to the main character afterward. A couple of deleted scenes showing more actual interaction between Walter and other characters also hints at how much weight the immigration subplot is given over the character-driven drama where we started. If you’re looking for a character piece about leaving the past behind and embracing new cultures to redefine your own miserable existence and reconnect with humanity, just remember that it isn’t fair when someone staying in the country illegally could be deported, especially if they’re your friend (yes, that’s really as melodramatic as it sounds).
(a two skull recommendation out of four)