Having lost his passion for teaching and writing, 62-year-old Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) fills the void by trying to learn to play classical piano. Sent to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him. Touched by his kindness, the talented Tarek insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The instrument’s exuberant rhythms revitalize Walter’s faltering spirit and open his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. When Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent).
The Visitor • by director Tom McCarthy
After a recent preview screening of my new film, The Visitor, someone asked me why it is that I always make films about lonely people. In my first film, The Station Agent, I focused on a lonely rail fan. In The Visitor, I turn my attention to Walter Vale, a lonely economics professor. Well, my immediate response to the question was that lonely people are funny. Consider any lonely person you know and chances are that it’s easy to laugh at them, or at the very least make fun of them.
I sat on this answer for about a day, at which point I came to the conclusion I must be a bad person. I mean who laughs at lonely people? It’s like laughing at depressed people. In fact, most lonely people are depressed, so I was, in effect, laughing at depressed people too, and thereby disparaging two segments of humanity with one answer. This did, in fact, seem like the action of a bad person and that was unsettling to me. I have always considered myself to be a good person. I was convinced there must be another spin on this, so I set to some further reflection.
And it was upon this further reflection that it suddenly occurred to me I was a lonely person. But this wasn’t troubling. In fact, it was just the opposite. You see, I would never laugh at myself. I’m just too fragile for self-mockery. So there must be another reason I make movies about lonely people. And if there is then maybe, just maybe, it’s a good one. Another spin. I decided to try my luck and I set to even further reflection. (Most of my reflections have been fruitless. Two successful reflections in a row are unheard of in my personal history.)
And then…Eureka! Just like that, another discovery. I don’t make films about lonely people at all. Rather, I make films about people, lonely and not, connecting with other people. That was the spin. A lonely person just always seemed like a good starting point. So, yes, I may stand rightly accused of being somewhat redundant in terms of my central characters’ key personality traits but at least I’m not bad. I mean, only a good person would make films about people connecting. Right?
In truth, be I bad or good, I have always been fascinated with how and why people connect. Especially people that come from different walks of life. In The Visitor, Walter Vale ends up befriending a young Syrian musician, his Senegalese girlfriend and his doting mother. How these four people come into contact is both comical and dramatic, but is certainly best left for you to discover on your own.
The “why” of their connection involves an African drum, the Staten Island Ferry, a United States Detention Facility and The Phantom of the Opera. I know what you’re thinking: Oh…that old story. But trust me when I say I think I’ve found an original spin. See…it’s all about spin.
The spin of a good person.