Feeling bereft in Connecticut, economics professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) gazes out his window. Still mourning the death of his beloved concert pianist wife, he appears at a standstill. The Visitor telegraphs his sense of loss and dislocation in telling moments: he’s uninterested in both daily chores (his lecture on trade in the Middle East is perfunctory) and long-term projects (he gives up his piano lessons and has months ago stopped work on his latest book). When a student suggests that his refusal to accept a late paper is unfair, as he hasn’t given the class a syllabus yet, Walter only nods, seeming to forget the exchange as it’s happening.
When his chair instructs him to attend a New York University conference and read a paper he’s supposedly co-authored, the other writer being pregnant and confined to bed rest, Walter sulks and tries unsuccessfully to avoid the assignment. Weary and sad, Walter is literally immobile. And so he drives to the city, where he will be saved.
The means to his change of heart appears as soon as Walter opens the door of his long unused New York apartment. Here he finds a couple living, somehow having keys from someone who is charging them rent (how this has come about remains a mystery Walter does not pursue). Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian musician and Zainab (Danai Gurira) his Senegalese girlfriend; they’re scraping together a living by his piecemeal club gigs and her handmade bracelets, sold at street fairs. Understandably startled to find them in his place, Walter is nonetheless struck by their sudden homelessness, occasioned by his arrival. Feeling responsible and inexplicably moved, he invites them to stay until they find somewhere else to go. Over a few days, though Zainab remains distrusting and anxious, Tarek is revealed in serial moments to be charismatic and generous by nature.
As Walter comes to know his guests, the film cuts around among brief impressionistic images: Walter at the Developing Nations conference (his academic interest so plainly speaking to his distance from the embodiments of this very theme he’s just met), Walter eating a sandwich in Washington Square Park, Zainab toting her table in a case to the market area, Tarek practicing his African drum. When Walter comes home one afternoon to discover Tarek in his underwear, the artist asserts quickly that this is the way he has always practiced, since he was a child. Walter’s discomfort — he shows a sort of visceral vulnerability — is quickly assuaged by Tarek’s invitation that he try playing. Once again granted a chance to show his kindness and curiosity, Walter agrees: Tarek sits him down and they place their mirroring drums between their knees. Zainab’s predictable concern at this idealish bonding can’t overcome the sheer joy visible in Tarek’s wide grins and his gift to Walter of a Fela Kuti cd. He loves his art, he loves his life, and he tends to resist acknowledging the daily risks of their illegal status.
Inevitably, the idyll is broken — though not before Tarek invites Walter to come play drums in a public circle. Reluctant to join in, when he does, Walter is at once enthusiastic and awkward, white, bald, and suited among a line of black men. The scene is both sweet and weird, making you acutely aware of what’s wrong with the film’s premise, that Walter will find himself by giving over to the enchantment of his Syrian visitor. The more haunting, less pat resonance of The Visitor has to do with Tarek’s own plight. Arrested for what seems a minor infraction in the subway — owing to Walter’s clumsiness — Tarek is also, of course, targeted by New York’s finest because he has dark skin and an Arabic “look.”
Sent off to a detention center in Queens, Tarek is afraid and alone, though Walter begins to visit him during the officially sanctioned hours, and even locates a lawyer to work on the case. Worried that she hasn’t heard from him for days, Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) travels from Michigan to New York, where she also encounters Walter unexpectedly, only coming to the address (Walter’s apartment) her son has given her. Here again, the film is working on several levels, the quests for home, community, and identity — all swirling around Tarek’s legal status. As it’s revealed that his paperwork is a mess and his case pretty much predetermined, both Walter and Mouna feel responsible, though also helpless. She sends notes to Tarek with Walter, who holds them to the glass so the prisoner can read them, his eyes scared and cheerless.
When Zainab, panicked, leaves to stay with relatives in New Jersey, Mouna moves into her and Tarek’s room and begins cleaning the apartment when Walter’s out (he takes a leave from the university so he can stay in the city and grapple with Tarek’s case). Their evolving relationship, a function of their shared grief and frustration, becomes another form of dislocation — as Tarek is less frequently visible, Walter finds friendship and warmth in his mother, taking her one evening to see the musical she has listened to on a cd from Tarek for years, Phantom of the Opera.
Tender and detailed, Thomas McCarthy’s movie features beautiful performances, Jenkins’ most prominently. But it is also grounded in a fundamental difficulty, that Walter’s education is achieved by his engagement with this set of brown and black people. It’s a grating conceit, and it’s hard to forget even as the film does work so hard to show the “others” not as objects of his experience, but as subjects who invite his understanding. The turn to Mouna, a possible romantic interest for Walter, is almost unbearable, though it is rendered delicately. The film’s specifics — the shy glances, telling close-ups of hands or smudged windows, the passing but so-significant references to the missing Twin Towers or “the floods” in Louisiana — are repeatedly overshadowed by its bulky premise.