Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a Connecticut professor who is disconnected from life, despite his halfhearted efforts to shake himself out of his aimless funk. He has tried to learn the piano, but on his fifth teacher he yet again feels he doesn't like what she is telling him and asks her not to return, although she gives him the option to sell the instrument should he settle on giving it up altogether. At work, he only teaches one class and claims to be setting aside time to write his latest book, but he is icily harsh with the students who cannot meet his high standards. Then one day he has to attend a conference in New York, and everything changes...
Not because of the conference, but because of what he finds in his city apartment. Or rather, who, as there is a couple living there as squatters, and after an altercation where he has to explain himself in his own home, which he hasn't visited for a few months so had no idea it was being illegally occupied, he starts to feel pangs of guilt at having to turn the couple, one Tarek (Haaz Slieman) from Syria and the other Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal, out onto the streets when they literally have nowhere else to live. There's your symbolism alert: Walter represents America and the squatters are the immigrant population seeking to live there.
But Tarik and Zainab are not in the United States legally, which causes a problem, though not with Walter. He finds these two are exactly what he needs in his life, and although the young woman is wary of him, her partner is an exceedingly friendly soul who generates a connection when Walter discovers he is a musician. As if to say, hey, I'm musical too, the professor grows entranced by this newcomer in his life and the rhythms he plays, so after a while he has a drum of his own and is accompanying him in jam sessions on the streets. Finally Walter is loosening up, as we are told early on the reason for his emotional constipation is the loss of this wife a few years before that we suspect he has never really recovered from.
The Visitor wears its liberal heart on its sleeve, but in spite of its best efforts you cannot imagine it converting any sceptics to its cause. It's a little too twee in its depiction of the immigrants, as if they're too good to be true, and the authorities would have to be utterly heartless to throw them out of the country, which is precisely what they turn out to be when Tarek is arrested and placed in a detention centre. Thankfully, writer and director Tom McCarthy didn't go too far the other way and demonise the foreigners, so they don't turn out to be drugs dealers or human traffickers, making his softhearted take on the issue a sweet film which gently tugs at the heartstrings, but neither does it work up any outrage about what occurs.
There is a scene where Walter confronts the impassive face of bureaucracy and his dull facade finally cracks, where we're meant to see the irony as this is the way that he has been treating his students as if there is no leeway to be offered either them or illegal immigrants, no matter that they may well be fleeing persecution in their homeland. But while McCarthy had the best of intentions in bringing a side of the discussion that often gets drowned out by kneejerk rhetoric, you cannot get away from the contrived nature of his story: the stuffy old white guy able to relax thanks to the vitality of the culture he has let into his life. It's as if he sat down and worked out how this could be as inoffensive as possible, meaning that The Visitor would be unlikely to fire up any arguments from either side of the debate. The result is a film that charms, and Jenkins deserved his Oscar nomination, but is merely small scale when it should have been intimate. Music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.