The Visitor
Somewhere, a naked Matthew McConaughey is crying because he wasn’t invited.

Golden Mug


Best Actor (Richard Jenkins)
Best Supporting Actress (Hiam Abbass)
Best Original Screenplay (Thomas McCarthy)

Theatrical Release Date: 04/18/2008
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

If you’ve seen “The Station Agent”, you should be impressed with writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s ability to create endearing characters and moving stories outside of the typical fare that gets crammed down our throats. If you haven’t seen it, now you have something to watch on DVD or cable because it’s easily one of the best films of 2003.

It’s taken four years but McCarthy finally found another story he wanted to write and direct – just releasing “The Visitor” in a limited run. Here’s the ultra-simplified premise: A lonely, guarded college professor (Richard Jenkins) comes home to New York to find two illegal immigrants (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira) living there – through a rental scam. In a mix of pity and a lapse in a desire for misery and loneliness, he lets them stay so they can sort out a new place to live. The immigrants lust for life rubs off on him and he begins to discover that hiding from the world is not the healthiest emotional decision to make.

It’s quite a bit more complicated than that but the plot points aren’t what makes this film so wonderful. It starts with the actors and the characters they portray. Jenkins beautifully embodies a man who has lost the will to engage in life, he is simply drifting from obligation to obligation, caring little for anything other than being able to avoid the problems of others and keeping his life as under the radar as possible.

Sleiman and Gurira are the embodiment of the American dream. From Syria and Senegal respectively, they are in New York indulging Sleiman’s dream of playing music. He has a regular gig at a jazz club and plays in Central Park on the side. She crafts jewelry to sell on the street. They have a loving relationship and it serves to break your heart when Sleiman is arrested and held in detention for being an illegal immigrant.

That act brings his mother (Hiam Abbass) to the city. Her introduction to Jenkins reawakens a part of him he hasn’t know since his wife died. The subtle development of their relationship is balanced well by McCarthy, as the film at that point is a mix of emotions because of the grim situation the characters have become embroiled in.

Much like her good performace in “Free Zone” (though the film wasn’t especially engaging), Abbass brings a presence to the film that’s almost regal. Her performance, like those of Jenkins and Sleiman especially, is profoundly moving and this is a tale that won’t shake so easily from your psyche.

McCarthy doesn’t Disney-fy the issues surrounding illegal immigration or stick to the expected outcomes moviegoers tend to prefer in those ridiculous test screenings studios and distributors hold. But I won’t get onto my rant about letting art speak for itself here. The focus should stay on “The Visitor”.

Thomas McCarthy has woven a tale of friendship, loss, immigration and hope all into one. I found myself absorbed in the characters’ plights and that’s a note of fairly high praise, as I’ve found that watching so many films each year makes me more jaded and able to disconnect from stories if they don’t manage to maintain a high level of excellence.

Fans of McCarthy’s work should rush right out to theaters to see this and I’d like to think this is a film that appeals to anyone. The message is universal; the acting, script and direction is top notch; and there just aren’t many films each year that are aimed at intelligent adults rather than the coveted under-24 market in hopes of capitalizing on action figures and happy meals.

I’m giving “The Visitor” a strong 4 out of 5. And really, it’s a razor thin margin by which it didn’t get a perfect score. I became so attached to the characters that I wanted more, I needed to see what happens next … and maybe that would have been worse to go into … as it would have lengthened the film and possibly created pacing issues … but I can only go with my gut on this one.

Still, I can’t recommend this highly enough and hope that people will find this little gem and treat themselves to a film that doesn’t dumb itself down just for the sake of making it easier to market. This is becoming a true rarity in mainstream cinema, which won’t end anytime soon as the majority of film-goers continue to buy high-priced tickets to over-hyped sequels and poorly-crafted schlock. I doubt I really need to provide examples of either.