Like what I said in my entry about The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy’s work is generally about connecting people and showing how compassion and empathy are paramount human qualities. It is the splintering of people that has defined contemporary urban life, and it is moments when we reach out and understand those who are different from us that we gain a deeper understanding of the human condition and become more human ourselves.
In The Visitor, McCarthy explores this theme by taking on a more controversial and incendiary issue. This film criticizes the unjust immigration policies that the United States of America has adopted after 9/11 by zooming in on its effects on an undocumented immigrant couple. They are hard-working, good-natured people who by all means deserve a shot at the American Dream, but their lives are shattered when they become victimized by the paranoia of America’s law enforcement agencies. McCarthy loses some of the subtlety he showed in his previous movie, but he lays down his politics here very clearly.
Like in The Station Agent, McCarthy adopts the perspective of people living in the fringes of society. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a global economics professor lives his life on auto-pilot and spends most of his time alone and detached from everyone. He is assigned by his university to go to New York for a speaking engagement, and when he goes to his old apartment there, he finds an Arab-African couple squatting in his home. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian immigrant who’s young, passionate and affable, and living with him is his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Walter has every right to kick them out, even to call on the police and have them arrested. But instead, Walter allows them to stay and befriends them. His is a lonely soul, and he needed the company.
Music plays an integral role in this film, serving as an aural metaphor for cultural exchange and communication. Walter’s deceased wife was a classical pianist and he tried unsuccessfully to learn the piano himself to fill the musical void that she left. But when he meets Tarek, who happens to play the African drums in bars and parks across the city, he tries to learn the instrument as an act of friendship. This movement – from the structured cadence of the Western classical music to the primal, spontaneous beats of the djembe – represents a personal transformation for Walter. No ethnicity has been “othered” more after 9/11 than the Arabs, and his willingness to learn and adopt Tarek’s musical heritage shows an openness that was lost after the death of his wife.
Tarek soon gets racially profiled and arrested for a minor offense and his status as an illegal immigrant becomes known to the authorities. He gets lost in the complex web of America’s detention system, with Walter being his only conduit to the real world. It is here that McCarthy makes a case against America’s immigration policies, showing its inhumane treatment of prisoners and their lack of access to legal remedies. He shows how discrimination is institutionalized, and perhaps is a reflection of how American attitudes have turned for the worse since 9/11. The attacks might have led to a renewed sense of national unity — but did it come at the expense of refusing to recognize the humanity of people who wish to be part of that community?
Given that his movie is primarily about race, one thing I am critical of is the role of Walter as the White savior of Tarek. I will not be quick to judge McCarthy because his intention is precisely to show the flaws in the system, but at the same time, it is Walter swooping in and entering their lives who ends up trying to save them. Part of it smacks of white guilt, of Walter being the vehicle for the primarily white audience to feel better about themselves. In fact, while we see how harrowing Tarek’s ordeal is, we see a lot more of Walter’s anguish and frustration for not being able to do anything to help him out. But I guess for the purpose of social change that is apt, since it is the Americans themselves who are in a position to demand for change. And now, four years after this movie’s release and eleven years after 9/11, are things really any better?