When I watch a movie I want to be drawn into the plot and have it all wrapped up by the end of the movie. Which is why character studies make me uncomfortable.
Things are rarely resolved in a character study. Things just are. Character studies make me feel like a voyeur. Like I shouldn’t be watching at all. But a good one will fascinate me so much I just can’t turn away.
The Visitor, was not what I was expecting at all. Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies The Station Agent, the blurb on this one didn’t scream out "Character Study". But the seemingly simple plot turns out not to be much of a plot at all. The movie just is.
Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) plays Walter Vale, a sixty-something professor who has been teaching the same single class at the same Connecticut university for so long he no longer shows any interest in the topic or in life around him. Widowed, his life seems boring, even to him. He’s trying to learn to play the piano, but he has no musical ability and doesn’t even enjoy it (he’s on his 4th piano teacher). When a paper he co-authored is selected for presentation in New York City he tries, unsuccessfully, to think of any way to get out of going.
Turns out Walter and his late wife, a concert pianist, had an apartment in Manhattan that he still keeps but never visits. When he arrives late one evening and lets himself in he finds not one but two people living in his space. Victims of a rental property scam, Terek, a musician from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab, a jewelry designed from Senegal, have rented the apartment from a "friend" named Victor.
Quickly realizing what has happened they pack up to leave. Walter’s conscious gets the better of him, and he invites them to stay on a few days until they can work something out. They thankfully accept.
Both Walter and Zainab are quiet and shy, but Terek is open and outgoing and quickly befriends Walter, inviting him to to a gig he’ll be playing, and then offering to give Walter drum lessons when he notices Walter’s fascination with his traditional drums.
The more time Walter and Terek spend together the more Walter begins to open up to the young man. You can feel Walter’s heart and soul start to thaw. But then life steps in, in the form of the US Immigration Dept. and we see Walter’s world begin to crumble again. But this time Walter stands up and fights back. And we see how much he has changed by letting Terek and Zainab into his life.