I firmly believe that every year is a good year for movies, but let’s be real – 2007 is a little more good than most, with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great cinema. That judgement holds even more water now that I’ve added The Visitor to my list of favorite films from 2007, because yeah, it’s pretty great.

It’s a small film, just like the other Tom McCarthy film I’ve seen (and love) The Station Agent, but with some very big ideas and emotions. Main character Walter (Richard Jenkins) is an economics professor who’s basically checked out of everything – he’s been teaching the same class for twenty years and it doesn’t matter to him, the book he’s supposed to be writing doesn’t matter to him, nothing matters to him. He’s trying to take piano lessons when we first meet him, and he gives up on that almost immediately, too, unable to carry through his attempt to hold onto something of his late wife, who had been a pianist.


Walter a quiet man, though, and all this is teased out throughout the whole movie. Not quiet, however, are the two young people unintentionally squatting in his rarely used New York apartment – they rented it in good faith from a wily opportunist. He lets them stay, the Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend. Tarek is a bongo drummer, and he teaches Walter to play after he expresses an interest and eventually an aptitude. The change in Walter isn’t immediate, but it is definite – this man who had forgotten how to feel is getting more than just bongo lessons.

This makes it all sound terribly sappy, but it isn’t at all. It’s very subtle, and very real, especially when Tarek is arrested for literally no reason but then detained when he’s discovered to be an illegal immigrant. The movie takes a social justice turn at this point (and yeah, it’ll make you mad at our immigration system), but stays focused on the characters and their relationships, on Walter and Tarek and Zeinab, and then on Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) who comes to be as near her son as she can. The growing tenderness between Walter and Mouna is particularly touching, especially as the film stays committed to the story it’s telling and refuses to bow to sentimentality.


Jenkins and Abbass are particularly skilled in the minute aspects of acting – a nod of the head or a half-smile speaking volumes. I’ve often been drawn to outsized performances lately, and I do love some good scenery-chewing, but it was a pleasure to see these folks do so much with so little.

Stats and stuff…

2007, USA
written and directed by Tom McCarthy
starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how The Visitor entered my chart:

The Visitor beats Wag the Dog
The Visitor beats The Devil’s Backbone
The Visitor loses to Ben-Hur (1959)
The Visitor beats The Shining
The Visitor beats Collateral
The Visitor beats Whale Rider
The Visitor loses to The Lost Weekend
The Visitor beats HaHaHa
The Visitor loses to Akira
The Visitor beats Shutter Island
The Visitor loses to The American

Final ranking #486 out of 3583 films on my chart (86th percentile)

It is now my #1 Tom McCarthy film, my #1 Richard Jenkins film, my #1 Ann-Margret film, my #13 Urban Drama (what a weird collection of films in that filter, but I guess I can see it), and my #8 film of 2007.

The Visitor was recommended by Greg Dorr, a friend from the Flickcharters Group on Facebook.

A few quotes…

Tarek: [to Walter, while teaching him bongos] “I know you’re a very smart man, but don’t think. Thinking screws it up.”

Walter: “I’ve been teaching the same course for twenty years and it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. None of it does.”

Tarek: “I am not a criminal. I have not committed a crime. I just want to live my life and play my music.”

Walter: “You can’t just take people away like that. Do you hear me? He was a good man, a good person. It’s not fair! We are not just helpless children! He had a life! Do you hear me? I mean, do YOU hear ME? What’s the matter with you?”

Mouna: “After a time you forget and think that you really belong.”

A few more screenshots…