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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Reawakened Joy
by Diana Saenger

While movie fans are lining up to see the latest Indiana Jones film, many may be missing a terrific movie that's slowly creating a loud roar. The Visitor stars Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale, a college professor who disconnected from the world after the death of his wife.

There was a time when teaching economics invigorated the 62-year-old Walter, and he cared about what his students learned -- or didn't. Since his wife died, Walter can't find joy in anything. Even when he begins piano lessons because his wife played, the piano teacher can see he's not really applying himself. Without hesitation, he curtly refuses a student's earnest request, and one wonders if Walter ever had the compassion to be a teacher.

After Walter must step in for a fellow colleague to present a paper at a conference in New York, he heads to an apartment he owns in Manhattan. Watching him en route is like watching a light bulb that has burned out.

Walking into his apartment Walter is immediately aware something’s amiss, and when he finds a woman in his bathtub, both individuals are frightened. Walter learns the Southern African woman, Zainab (Danai Gurira), and her boyfriend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian man, were told they could rent the unoccupied place.

At first, these strangers seem like three vegetables trying to find their place in an apple pie. Each one appears to be honest, trustworthy and in an impossible situation. Walter takes little time to respond to the dilemma and -- like the rest of his recent emotionless life -- never objects when the couple agrees to leave, quickly pack a few items and go out the door. Moments later, however, as he's walking down the street and sees they clearly have no place to go, Walter tells them to come back.

Grateful for the kindness extended to them, the young lovers show appreciation in several ways. Tarek, who plays drums on the streets for money, finds Walter trying to play his drum one day, and offers to give him lessons.  As Walter discovers a rhythm he never knew he had within himself, he also begins to feel concern for his new friends. This becomes apparent when Tarek doesn't return home one day because of being detained as an illegal and threatened with deportation.

Jenkins is an exceptional character actor whose work in many films outshines the leads. He's played everything from comedy and horror to drama. Some may remember him in North Country, the Farrelly's Say It Isn’t So (2001), the Coen's The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and his role in the HBO acclaimed series Six Feet Under.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy may be basically a newbie on the movie scene, but his prior work, 2003's The Station Agent, was another unobtrusive character piece that found favor with those who saw it. McCarthy knew the role of Walter had to be played by an actor with an Everyman quality about him. “Richard's been in so many movies and yet he always manages to create thoroughly original characters, disappearing into his roles," said McCarthy.

Jenkins gets a far amount of work offered to him, but this film sparked an instant interest. 'It was beautiful, human, and cliché free," he declared. "I felt like when I read it I was looking through somebody’s window, like I was intruding in someone’s world. I don’t get scripts like that any more. I just got absorbed in it."

The subtleties of this story, and in particular the character of Walter, would be a challenge for almost any actor. Never pretentious or overstated, Jenkins actually lifts a description of a flat, forlorn man off the page and inflates Walter with life.

"We all understand being stuck and looking for answers in the same places and not finding anything new or how to get out of a rut," Jenkins said. "I’m sometimes reluctant to try new things or meet new people. So I understood Walter's slide into just existing, and how I needed to make the character shed his old skin."

Part of Walter finding new passion for life comes in the form of Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). She arrives at word of her son's trouble, and soon she and Richard are kindred spirits who want the best for Tarek. They also find a solace in each other that fills the loneliness they barely knew existed.

Fresh and never overwritten, The Visitor explores politics, immigration and tragedy through a time when one man learns an act of kindness can make all the difference in the world. It can even reawaken joy.

(Released by  Overture Films and rated "PG-13" for scattered strong profanity, some brief violence, and slurs based on nationality and ethnicity.)

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