The Visitor is one goofy movie. Like the recent An American Carol, it is so drenched in its own agenda that it ceases being a movie early on. Scene after self-gratifying scene, writer/director Tom McCarthy uses the creation of NYU global economics professor Walter Vale (a poorly "veiled" attempt at symbolism if there ever was one...) to grapple with issues of white guilt. Richard Jenkins - a mild talent that people frequently misjudge as "great" simply because they recognize him from other movies - plays the depressive, widower professor going through life's motions until he finds his groove in the rhythm of the djembe drum he learns to play from a squatter unknowingly living in his apartment.
In the characters of Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), McCarthy does a disservice to real-life illegal immigrants by using these Syrian and Senegalese characters as race defined chess pieces. There is no honest attempt at understanding or empathic reach extended to the struggles of immigrants seeking asylum in a country he or she now considers home. McCarthy can only resort to silly Ellis Island set-pieces that intend to expose Walter's unappreciated sense of citizenship. On a ferry to Staten Island, Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) asks Walter if he's been to the Statue of Liberty. He says no, she looks surprised, he recoils in shame... ungrateful Americans!
Later, a women approaches Zainab's hand-crafted jewelry table at a street fair. After admiring her work, she buys a bracelet and asks Zainab where she's from. Zainab tells her Senegal, and the woman responds, "Oh, I was in Cape Town once!". But when the woman leaves, Zainab's neighbor leans in and snarks, "How far was your home from Cape Town?", "About 800 miles", she answers as they snicker together. Stupid Americans! (But, you know, this is just absurd to me. How believable is it that a new immigrant could turn into snotty New Yorker in just six short months. Right???)
These unbearable moments build and build, ultimately leading to The Visitor's uber-climactic moment of idiocy: After Tarek's mother unsuccessfully tries to get him out of an immigration detention center, she weeps "It's just like in Syria", referring back to the time her husband was jailed by the government for writing an article in the Damascus newspaper. Yes, being in the country illegally, ignoring asylum rejection orders, and then being deported - on American dime - back to Syria, is just like a citizen of a country being jailed for free speech. Mean Americans!
Like many well-intentioned political films that get tangled-up in rhetoric, The Visitor lacks any semblance of visual clarity or beauty that could have alleviated some of the heavy-handed pressure put on the viewer for the entire feels-like-forever 103 minutes. McCarthy's direction is dispassionate and the camera work is flat, never once attempting expressiveness in a film that hinges on the drama of humans. But that's just it, McCarthy puts the sermon in front of the drama, leaving an empty shell of a film resting in the middle of central park. Thing is, when you bang on it, it just sounds hollow.