When he grudgingly goes to New York for an Economics conference, Walter discovers that his infrequently visited apartment has been surreptitiously rented to a pair of unexpected visitors: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), who makes and sells jewelry. In an unexpected act of compassion (or is it loneliness?), Walter lets the couple stay after figuring out that they've been the victims of a rental scam.
Thus begins an awkward friendship. With Tarek as a tutor, Walter (Richard Jenkins) discovers that he's got rhythm, and starts bouncing to the beat of an African drum. Everything is groovy, in a multi-culti melting pot kinda way, until Tarek is unexpectedly arrested and gets mired in the Kafkaesque post-9/11 immigration system. Turns out that Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants - a fact that turns The Visitor from a breezy, heartwarming fairy tale into a nightmare.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), The Visitor is quietly, charmingly low-key, which is how it manages to sustain a sense of plausibility in a story that is fairly improbable. It is also helped tremendously by Jenkins, whose pitch-perfect performance is as unflashy and modest as they get. It's an understated and moving performance, full of sad looks, funny sighs and quiet desperation. Jenkins eloquently conveys the slow waking of a man who has been sleepwalking for years, suddenly roused both to the pleasures of life and friendship and to a newfound political awareness and sense of outrage. The Visitor depends as much on Jenkins's natural performance as The Station Agent depended on Peter Dinklage - McCarthy cast both pictures impeccably well, and lets his actors set the storytelling pace, which gives the movies a kind of natural ebb and flow that moves over and around potential problem areas.
The Visitor is two intertwined stories: On the one hand, it's a life-affirming fable about the unexpected rewards of compassion and generosity and the healing power of music. There's nothing unexpected there; yet the film is still charming, and still manages to pull off a few surprises. On the other hand, the movie is an effort to agitate for a more rational and humane immigration policy - one that treats people as individuals rather than as generic suspects. Bringing these two very different agendas together is tricky business, but The Visitor, in its offbeat and quiet way, manages to do it thanks in part to engaging, unfussy performances and in part to McCarthy's deft, intelligent storytelling.