What's in a Name?

The title of Tom McCarthy's new film, The Visitor, is intriguingly ambiguous. The film depicts a middle-aged economics professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), who is in the midst of a prolonged mid-life crisis. His wife is dead, his grown son lives in London (although this piece of information is thrown in gratuituously late in the film). He is bored by teaching and stuck on his fourth book. Then circumstance takes him to New York, where he finds a charming couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zeinab (Danai Gurira), who have been squatting in his seldom-used Village digs. he lets them stay, first out of decency, then because he is increasingly drawn to them. Tarek is a professional drummer, originally from Syria, who picks up on Walter's nervous habit of drumming his fingers on any available surface and shows him how to harness it to music.
The two bond over their djembes. Then mischance leads to Tarek's arrest on a fare-beating charge and his removal to a detention center for undocumented immigrants. Now Walter is committed, determined to do whatever he can to extricate Tarek from a situationfor which he feels partly responsible. And when Tarek's handsome mother Mouna (the always splendid Hiam Abbas at her most warmly regal) arrives from Detroit, he finds himself with another reason to help.

Who, then, is the titular visitor? It goes to the heart of the film, to its appeal, which is based on MrCarthy's gently unpredictable approach to character and narrative, at once both quirky yet reassuring. As in McCarthy's charming debut feature The Station Agent, one feels very strongly that nothing very terrible will happen to the characters we care about, yet neither film slips into the treacly faux-humanism that disfigures most studio product.

At first glance, Mouna might seem to be the visitor of the title, flying into Walter's life at the last possible moment from someplace more alien to him than Detroit. Yet she has as much reason to be in New York as anyone, coming to protect her son. Zeinab and Tarek aren't visitors either; they've been living in the city for several years. No, the real stranger is Walter, the American citizen, born and raised in the U.S. and a representative of everything typical of American society at its most enlightened -- education, a civilized approach to a globalizing world, classical music (his late wife's field). It is only by visiting New York, that multicultural resting point for all the world's cultures that he can regain a sense of his self, getting in touch with his own different drummer, so to speak. (Margo pointed out to me that another famous example of a character named Vale occurs in Now Voyager, in which Bette Davis, as Charlotte Vale, is shaken out of her mid-life crisis by two foreign-sounding men, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.)

This more than a clever writing trick. Richard Jenkins's performance as Walter is so carefully gauged that one sense the man sloughing off an old dead skin to be very cautiously reborn. I have my misgivings about The Visitor's somewhat ramshackle structure (and a lot of plausibility problems with it musically), but at its heart, The Visitor is a deeply felt and intelligently crafted film.