A genuinely unexpected gem. As he proved with his first film as a director and screenwriter, 2003's The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy knows how to convey the fine line between solitude and loneliness in his characters' lives with an emotional preciseness that doesn't call attention to itself. It's not surprising that McCarthy is an actor because he's able to capture the very subtle nuances in behavior in actors that make his work feel like Edward Hopper paintings come to life. As a result, you pay attention to a simple gesture, a passing glance, a resigned sigh. This time, his protagonist is Walter Vale, an enervated, middle-aged economics professor at a Connecticut college. Widowed and wholly lacking in professional motivation, he begrudgingly accepts an assignment to go to an academic conference at NYU and present a paper on globalization he really didn't write.
Coming back to a Greenwich Village flat he rarely uses, he is surprised to find a couple living there. Not squatters but unfortunate victims of a rental scam, they turn out to be illegal aliens, a Syrian percussionist named Tarek and his girlfriend Zainab, a Senegalese who makes and sells handcrafted jewelry. As withdrawn from life as Walter is, he slowly finds himself bonding with the couple and lets them stay indefinitely. Zainab is slow to trust Walter, but Tarek and Walter become close over a mutual love of African drums. As his wife was a famous classical pianist, Walter had been futilely attempting to find musical inspiration since her death. However, just as this charming tale of world harmony plays out, it comes back to harsh reality when Tarek is arrested and taken to a detention center in Queens for deportation. What McCarthy does from this point forward is show how sadly restrictive the post-9/11 environment has made immigration laws and how there is no recourse to be found under the constant surveillance of a bureaucratic government protected by the latitude of the Patriot Act.
None of this is hit over our heads with a politically motivated sledgehammer. Far from such polemics, the story singularly focuses on Walter's emergence of purpose in helping Tarek. When Tarek's mother Mouna arrives from Detroit, McCarthy adeptly shows how Walter's closeness to Tarek translates without condition to her. It's a moving transformation of a formerly lonely man finding intimacy in the most unlikely situation. In a once-in-a-lifetime role, character actor Richard Jenkins brings heart and soul to Walter in the most economical manner. Best known as the ghostly father in HBO's Six Feet Under, he has worked steadily in films for three decades, his most memorable turn being the gay FBI agent high on heroin in David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster. With his constant look of resignation on the verge of revelation, Jenkins gives a wondrously poignant, often dryly funny performance that deepens as the story evolves.
Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira are terrifically winning as Tarek and Zainab, and they make their bonding with Walter more than credible. As Mouna, Hiam Abbass is no stranger to persevering maternal roles as she brought her particular brand of strength to Hany-Abu Assad's controversial Paradise Now and Eran Riklis' family dramedy, The Syrian Bride. In response to Walter's fumbling overtures, she affectingly conveys her character's resolute stillness and gradual blossoming. There are brief cameos by comic actor Richard Kind as Walter's unctuous neighbor, Deborah Rush as a wealthy and ignorant customer of Zainab's, and Broadway legend Marian Seldes as Walter's failed piano teacher. At first, I thought the film's title was blandly generic in describing those who are here from other lands, but I realize now that the visitor is really Walter as he discovers his soul. The last shot is memorable and captures the fury of his passion with potent force. Strongly recommended.