We begin in Connecticut, with professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) letting go of his latest piano teacher (he’s so indecisive!), refusing a student’s tardy paper (he’s so unsympathetic!), sitting alone at a table inside the teacher’s lunchroom (he’s so lonely!), and making a fuss about filling in for a colleague at a New York University conference (he’s so difficult!). Pretty innocuous stuff so far, and you wonder why Thomas McCarthy didn’t just call the thing About Walter, but that darn “Bring Our Troops Home” sign hanging from a highway overpass suggests there are bigger themes the director wants to just as strenuously drive into the ground.
Arriving in New York City, Walter discovers a Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend living inside his apartment, for reasons that are never sufficiently explained. Much clearer is that Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) are sideshow attractions in what is a chronicle of a white man’s socio-cultural awakening: From showing Walter how to play the African drum to getting arrested as an undocumented citizen, Tarek puts a human face to Global Policy and Development (the subject of the NYU conference Walter attended)—a crash course you can’t learn at any university. “Thinking just screws it up,” says someone at one point, which is an adequate summation of the film’s problems. When Walter, Zainab, and Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), worry about where Tarek might be shipped to next, Walter casually says, “Louisiana,” to which Zainab asks, “Where they had the floods?” From murals that pay reverence to the Twin Towers to posters of collaged multi-culti faces, The Visitor‘s allusions to our fucked-up state-of-affairs feel like gratuitous background noise.
A scene at the marketplace where Zainab hawks her homemade jewelry begins condescendingly, with McCarthy thumbing his nose at a cartoon stereotype of a racist white woman, only to become insightful when the camera actually turns to Zainab and shows how non-whites internalize racism and sometimes choose to laugh it off as a means of staying sane. But aside from this neat little scene, which works to rationalize Zainab’s previously inexplicable sour puss, and a few lovely exchanges between Walter and Mouna, McCarthy’s movie is less about the trials of illegals in this country as it effects illegals but as it does people like Walter who are inspired to give a damn about them. There’s no doubting guys like him exist, or that more of them should, but the film’s last image is a preposterous solicitation of white guilt, with Walter playing music in a New York City subway for all the non-white people who can’t, and you wish the camera would pan to a sign hanging over his head that read: “Freedom By Proxy Ain’t Freedom.”