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'The Visitor,' Finding a Welcome in His Own Home

Walter Vale is the sort of guy you'd describe as bland and colorless if you bothered describing him at all. He's a 60-something economics professor who seems to be doing little more than going through the motions of living. When those motions take him from his campus to his usually unoccupied New York apartment, he's surprised to find the lights on — and someone in the bathtub.

Turns out Tarek, a young Syrian emigre, and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab, have been tricked into thinking they're renting the apartment. They quickly pack, though they have nowhere to go, but Walter — realizing that they meant no harm and needing a little noise in a life left too quiet since the death of his concert-pianist wife — lets them stay. He gets more noise than he bargained for, but he sort of likes it. Tarek, you see, is a drummer, and the two men bond over music as he gives Richard lessons, teaching him to loosen up and commune with the rhythms of the djembe.

Up to this point, the film has been a story about Walter's re-emergence into life. But when a simple misunderstanding leads to racial profiling and Tarek gets arrested on the subway, the story veers in another direction. He and Zainab are in the country illegally, having long overstayed their visas, and the most trifling arrest brings with it the possibility of dire repercussions.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy is the guy who created The Station Agent, a story about a lonely, isolated soul who connects with a few other isolated souls in ways both whimsical and serious. That's not a bad description of The Visitor, too, though this time around the seriousness dominates, at least once the immigration issue gets raised.

It's easy to see where the film could have gone off the rails, sentimentally or politically correctly. But the filmmaker isn't intent on drumming messages into the audiences' head so much as he is in using drumming to reveal character through smartly nuanced performances.

Particularly those two drummers: Haaz Sleiman's enormously appealing Tarek and Richard Jenkins' Walter, who's quietly, unassumingly affecting as he figures out how not to be a visitor in his own life.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.