A sign on the wall says it all: "Immigrants, America's strength." Of course, it's located inside a detention center where illegal immigrants are held in Thomas McCarthy's new movie, "The Visitor."
"The Visitor" focuses on a widowed college professor named Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). Walter is sleepwalking through life, marked by grief after his wife's death. He teaches one class a semester while he "works" on a book. Life is lived in the confines of a routine that consists of learning the piano and drinking too much wine.
But the routine is interrupted.
Walter must travel to New York City, where he keeps an apartment, to reluctantly present a conference paper. Arriving at his apartment, he is stunned to find a woman in his tub and another man in the apartment as well. After a few tense moments, it is discovered that the couple was duped by another person into thinking they had legitimately rented the apartment. The woman is Zainab (Danai Jekesai Guira) from Senegal, and the man is Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria.
After things are sorted out, the couple leaves. But when Walter sees them standing in the street with their belongings, something moves in Walter and he asks them to return. Zainab is standoffish to Walter, but as time passes Tarek embraces the widower. Tarek plays the drum, which interests Walter. His wife was a pianist, and he has been trying to learn the piano as a way to connect with her memory. But he can't learn the instrument no matter how many teachers he hires.
When Tarek teaches Walter how to play the drum, there's a connection.
The drama ratchets up, however, after Tarek is arrested for a minor offense. He's put in a detention center, Walter hires him an attorney, and it's here that writer-director McCarthy begins to make his point.
In one scene, we see the Statue of Liberty. Zainab points to it and asks Walter if he has ever been to it. He says no, but we're reminded of the statue's promise:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
McCarthy tells his story in quiet tones. "The Visitor" is not in-your-face moviemaking. It's subtle, and one needs only to enjoy these magnificent actors and soak up the subtext.
The movie reminds us that before we wrap ourselves in the flag and clutch our Bibles, we need to crack open the Book and see what it says about the stranger in our midst. The Law of Moses says, "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Dt 10:19).
"The Visitor" is a movie of grace and wisdom, which is best seen in the lead actor, Richard Jenkins. Jenkins should be remembered during awards season, for his understated, passionate expression of the grief-stricken Walter Vale is one of the finest performances of the year.
See "The Visitor" if you wish to contemplate another side of the immigration issue. See it if you wish to be reminded that most who come to this country come for the same reason our ancestors came: for a chance at new life.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Cast: Walter Vale: Richard Jenkins; Tarek Khalid: Haaz Sleiman; Zainab: Danai Jekesai Guira; Mouna Khalid: Hiam Abbass.
The movie's official Web site is here.