Unexpected guests

Immigration drama The Visitor offers a deeply human portrait of loss

On screen solitary silence plays with a quality that’s nearly impossible to replicate anywhere else. Where life’s isolation is always experienced as an internal monologue film can probe its subject with an exacting focus that includes its audience in deeply private moments.

After his award-winning 2003 directorial debut The Station Agent writer-director Thomas McCarthy has again proven his fine sense of the solitary with The Visitor a story about the Byzantine consequences of illegal immigration raised in the isolated life of a directionless New England widower. Playing connection against isolation with subtlety and humanity McCarthy says the most when his characters say nearly nothing at all.

An economics professor living in the shadow of his wife’s death Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is introduced as a man in a self-made rut — gruffly rebuffing a student’s appeal and recycling course materials by whiting-out the date from another year’s syllabus. Sent reluctantly to New York to present an academic paper he nominally co-wrote Walter stumbles into his long-vacant apartment to find an illegal immigrant couple Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) squatting there. After the initial awkwardness compounded by Walter’s atrophied social skills the trio settles into a temporary roommate relationship. This soon develops into a friendship between Walter and Tarek represented by Walter’s growing interest in Tarek’s drumming.

In less dexterous hands human connection personal growth and a subplot based on the invigorating power of percussion could easily be overplayed — a schmaltzy trap McCarthy deftly avoids. Likewise he handles a restrained romantic subplot between Walter and Tarek’s concerned mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) with a finesse that balances sentimentality and pragmatism reaching a connection that never finds a happy ending.

In this subtlety The Visitor finds wonderful moments of empathy and awkwardness as when a just-fired piano teacher tries to buy Walter’s piano because he doesn’t have the requisite talent to use it properly. In fact it is only in moments of explosion such as Walter’s confrontation with an immigration detention centre employee or the film’s final outburst that it loses power. Though the contrast of connection and isolation is at the film’s centre extremes don’t serve it as well as its characters’ attempts to negotiate the subtle shades of the two.

Affecting and quiet The Visitor offers a deeply human portrait of loss connection and the losses made possible by the same. Breaking its silence with the often-clumsy connections we find ourselves making with others McCarthy offers a film whose focus on silences allows us to experience isolation and connection together.