Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed Connecticut College economics professor who lives a fairly solitary existence. He fills his days by sometimes taking piano lessons in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist, and infrequently works on a new book. When he is asked to present a paper at an academic conference at New York University, he is not enthusiastic to make the trip, given he is only the nominal co-author and has never even read the complete work. Charles (Michael Cumpsty), his department head, insists and Walter is forced to attend.
When he arrives in his old apartment in Manhattan, Walter is startled to find a young unmarried couple living there, having rented it from a swindler who claimed it was his. Tarek is an immigrant from Syria (Haaz Sleiman), a Palestinian-Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Gurira) is a Senegalese designer of ethnic jewelry. He later discovers both are illegal immigrants. Although they have no place to go, they hastily pack and leave, but Walter decides to let them stay. Over the next few days, a friendship slowly develops. Tarek teaches Walter to play the drum, and the two men join a group of others at a regular drum circle in Central Park.
On the way home, Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping, arrested for "failing" to pay his fare (although he actually had), and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. In order to prevent Tarek's deportation from the United States, Walter hires an immigration lawyer. Feeling uncomfortable about remaining in the apartment with Walter, Zainab moves out to live with relatives in the Bronx.
Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), unexpectedly arrives from her home in Michigan when she is unable to contact her son. Because she is also illegally in the States, she is unable to visit her son. Hesitating, she accepts Walter's offer to stay in the apartment, and the two develop a friendship. Walter confesses his life is unfullfilling; he dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and the book he is allegedly writing is nowhere near completion. It is revealed that Mouna's journalist husband died following a lengthy politically motivated imprisonment in Syria, and she is concerned about her son's future prospects if he is deported. The two begin to share a simple domestic existence, with Mouna preparing meals and Walter treating her to The Phantom of the Opera when she mentions her love for the original cast recording Tarek sent her as a gift.
Without warning, Tarek is summarily deported back to Syria. Mouna, left with no one in the States, decides to follow him and to return to live there. On their final night, Mouna joins Walter for a comforting embrace in bed, blaming herself for all that has gone wrong. Walter sees her off at the airport the next day. Alone once again, Walter plays his drum on a subway platform, as Tarek once told him he himself would like to do some time.Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale: McCarthy had Jenkins in mind from the beginning because he has an "amazing and wonderful everyman quality" which helped create the character. After two and a half years of writing he worked with Jenkins to finalize it.
Haaz Sleiman as Tarek: Before this role Sleiman had never played the drums and had to practice three hours a day for a month and a half. After watching a documentary on Fela Kuti, Sleiman came up with the idea for Tarek to rehearse in his underwear.
Danai Gurira as Zainab
Hiam Abbass as Mouna
Richard Kind as Jacob
Michael Cumpsty as Charles
Marian Seldes as Barbara
The story for the film started with the characters of Tarek and Walter. McCarthy wanted to have those characters interact and creating the story was like "putting pieces of a puzzle together." He first started writing the film during a state-sponsored visit to the Middle East. He says he had "an especially great connection with the people I met in Beirut" and didn't consider the immigration angle until he returned to New York City.
The film was shot on location in New York City. Some scenes were filmed on campus at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. The soundtrack includes "Open and Close" and "Je'nwi Teni (Don't Gag Me)," written and performed by Nigerian musician/composer Fela Kuti.
The film premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and was shown at numerous 2008 festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, the European Film Market, the Portland International Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival, South by Southwest, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Phoenix Film Festival, and the Philadelphia International Film Festival. The Visitor was given a limited release in the US on April 11 in 4 theaters and earned $86,488 with an average of $21,622 per theater ranking 45th at the box office. The film's widest release was 270 theaters and it ended up earning $9,427,089 domestically and $8,651,086 internationally for a total of $18,078,175, above its $4 million production budget.
The Visitor received mostly positive reviews from critics and has a rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 116 reviews with an average rating of 7.6 out of 10. The consensus states "The Visitor is a heartfelt, humanistic drama that deftly explores identity, immigration, and other major post-9/11 issues." The film also has a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 29 reviews.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times observed, "The curious thing about The Visitor is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way ... It is possible to imagine a version of this story ... that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way. And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has. Much as The Station Agent nimbly evaded the obstacles of cuteness and willful eccentricity it had strewn in its own path, so does The Visitor, with impressive grace and understatement, resist potential triteness and phony uplift."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film 3½ out of four stars and called it "a wonderful film, sad, angry, and without a comforting little happy ending". He added, "All four actors are charismatic, in quite different ways ... Jenkins creates a surprisingly touching, very quiet, character study. Not all actors have to call out to us. The better ones make us call out to them."
Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Devotees of The Station Agent will be relieved to know that writer-director Tom McCarthy gives no indication of a sophomore slump. His second film ... is, if anything, more imaginative and touching than his first. McCarthy puts a mark on each film, identifying it as distinctly his own. A couple more like them, and he'll be knighted an auteur ... Jenkins' multilevel performance is continually surprising ... The part of Walter was written for [him], and he inhabits it like a second skin."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 3½ out of four stars, calling it "a heartfelt human drama that sneaks up and floors you." He described screenwriter/director McCarthy as "that rare talent who can work in miniature to reveal major truths [and] ... is attuned to the nuances of behavior" and said "Jenkins delivers a master class in acting. Oscar, take note."
John Anderson of Variety said, "Some films click from the moment they're cast, and that is certainly the case with The Visitor ... a perfect vehicle for Richard Jenkins [who] ... plays McCarthy's transfigured hero to a tee ... Visitor tilts toward the soulful rather than the political, and could be this year's humanistic indie hit."
Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor graded the film C+, criticizing Richard Jenkins' "underpowered" performance and the film's "squishy humanism."
The film was named best of the year by the Washington Post, the Charlotte Observer, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It also was cited as one of the year's ten best by numerous publications, including the Chicago Reader, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.
The DVD was released on October 7, 2008. Viewers have the option of either widescreen anamorphic or fullscreen formats. Bonus features include commentary by writer/director Tom McCarthy and star Richard Jenkins, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, a history of the djembe and instructions on how to play it, and the original trailer.
Awards and nominationsAcademy Award for Best Actor (Richard Jenkins, nominee)
Brisbane International Film Festival Interfaith Award (Tom McCarthy, winner)
Critics' Choice Award for Best Actor (Jenkins, nominee)
Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor (Jenkins, nominee)
Deauville American Film Festival Grand Special Prize (McCarthy, winner)
Independent Spirit Award for Best Director (McCarthy, winner)
Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor (Jenkins, nominee)
Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor (Haaz Sleiman, nominee)
Method Fest Independent Film Festival Award for Best Director (winner)
Method Fest Independent Film Festival Award for Best Actor (Jenkins, winner)
Method Fest Independent Film Festival Award for Best Supporting Actress (Danai Jekesai Gurira, winner)
Moscow International Film Festival Silver St. George for Best Actor (Jenkins, winner)
National Board of Review Spotlight Award (Jenkins, winner)
Satellite Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (Jenkins, winner)
Satellite Award for Best Original Screenplay (winner)
Satellite Award for Best Director (nominee)
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Jenkins, nominee)
Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay (nominee)