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The Visitor

Original poster
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Produced by Michael London
Mary Jane Skalski
Written by Thomas McCarthy
Starring Richard Jenkins
Haaz Sleiman
Danai Jekesai Gurira
Hiam Abbass
Music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Cinematography Oliver Bokelberg
Editing by Tom McArdle
Distributed by Overture Films
Release date(s) Toronto International Film Festival
September 7, 2007
United States
April 18, 2008
Running time 103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4 million[1]
Gross revenue $17,622,972 (worldwide)[2]

The Visitor is a 2008 American drama film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy and produced by Michael London and Mary Jane Skalski. Executive Producers were Jeff Skoll and Omar Amanat. The screenplay focuses on a lonely man in late middle age whose life changes when he is forced to face issues relating to identity, immigration, and cross-cultural communication in post-9/11 New York City. For The Visitor, McCarthy won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Director[3], while Richard Jenkins[4] was nominated for Best Actor in the 2009 Academy Awards.



Walter Vale is a widowed Connecticut College economics professor who lives a fairly solitary existence. He fills his hours by taking piano lessons in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist, and works on a new book, although his efforts at both are not producing encouraging results. When he is asked to present a paper at an academic conference at New York University, he hesitates to comply, given he is only the nominal co-author and never even read it. Charles, his department head, persists, and Walter is forced to attend.

When he arrives at the apartment he maintains in Manhattan, he is startled to discover a young unmarried couple living there, having rented it from a swindler who claimed it was his. They are Tarek, a Palestinian-Syrian[5] djembe player, and Zainab, a Senegalese designer of ethnic jewelry. He later discovers both are illegal immigrants. Although they have no place to go, they hastily pack and leave, but Walter follows them and persuades them to return. Over the next few days, a friendship slowly develops. Tarek teaches Walter to play the drum, and the two men join a group of others at an impromptu drum circle in Central Park.

En route home, Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping, arrested for failing to pay his fare, and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. In order to prevent Tarek's deportation from the United States, Walter hires an immigration lawyer. Feeling uncomfortable about remaining in the apartment with Walter, Zainab moves out to live with relatives in The Bronx.

Tarek's mother Mouna unexpectedly arrives from her home in Michigan when she is unable to contact her son. Also in the States illegally, she accepts Walter's offer to stay in the apartment, and the two develop a friendship. Walter confesses his life is unfullfilling; he dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and the book he allegedly is writing is nowhere near completion. It is revealed that Mouna's journalist husband died following a lengthy politically-motivated imprisonment in Syria, and she is concerned about her son's future prospects if he is deported. The two begin to share a simple domestic existence, with Mouna preparing meals and Walter treating her to The Phantom of the Opera when she mentions her love for the original cast recording Tarek sent her as a gift.

Without warning, Tarek is summarily deported to Syria, and Mouna decides to follow him. Alone once again, Walter plays his drum on a subway platform, as Tarek once told him he himself would like to do some time.


  • Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale: McCarthy had Jenkins in mind from the beginning because he has an "amazing and wonderful everyman quality" which helped create the character. After two and a half years of writing he worked with Jenkins to finalize it.[1]
  • Haaz Sleiman as Tarek: Before this role Sleiman had never played the drums and had to practice three hours a day for a month and a half. After watching a documentry on Fela Kuti, Sleiman came up with the idea for Tarek to rehearse in his underwear.[6]
  • Danai Jekesai Gurira as Zainab
  • Hiam Abbass as Mouna
  • Richard Kind as Jacob
  • Michael Cumpsty as Charles
  • Marian Seldes as Barbara


The story for the film started with the characters of Tarek and Walter. McCarthy wanted to have those characters interact and creating the story was like "putting pieces of a puzzle together."[7] He first started writing the film during a state-sponsored visit to the Middle East. He says he had "an especially great connection with the people I met in Beirut" and didn't consider the immigration angle until he returned to New York City.[8]

The film was shot on location in New York City. Some scenes were filmed on campus at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. The soundtrack includes "Open and Close" and "Je'nwi Teni (Don't Gag Me)," written and performed by Nigerian musician/composer Fela Kuti.


The film premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and was shown at numerous 2008 festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, the European Film Market, the Portland International Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival, South by Southwest, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Phoenix Film Festival, and the Philadelphia International Film Festival before going into limited release in the US on April 11.


Critical reception

The Visitor received generally positive reviews. The on-line aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported 90% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 100 reviews.[9] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 79 out of 100, based on 29 reviews.[10]

A.O. Scott of the New York Times observed, "The curious thing about The Visitor is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way ... It is possible to imagine a version of this story ... that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way. And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has. Much as The Station Agent nimbly evaded the obstacles of cuteness and willful eccentricity it had strewn in its own path, so does The Visitor, with impressive grace and understatement, resist potential triteness and phony uplift."[11]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film 3½ out of four stars and called it "a wonderful film, sad, angry, and without a comforting little happy ending". He added, "All four actors are charismatic, in quite different ways ... Jenkins creates a surprisingly touching, very quiet, character study. Not all actors have to call out to us. The better ones make us call out to them."[12]

Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Devotees of The Station Agent will be relieved to know that writer-director Tom McCarthy gives no indication of a sophomore slump. His second film ... is, if anything, more imaginative and touching than his first. McCarthy puts a mark on each film, identifying it as distinctly his own. A couple more like them, and he'll be knighted an auteur ... Jenkins' multilevel performance is continually surprising ... The part of Walter was written for [him], and he inhabits it like a second skin."[13]

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 3½ out of four stars, calling it "a heartfelt human drama that sneaks up and floors you." He described screenwriter/director McCarthy as "that rare talent who can work in miniature to reveal major truths [and] ... is attuned to the nuances of behavior" and said "Jenkins delivers a master class in acting. Oscar, take note."[14]

John Anderson of Variety said, "Some films click from the moment they're cast, and that is certainly the case with The Visitor ... a perfect vehicle for Richard Jenkins [who] ... plays McCarthy's transfigured hero to a tee ... Visitor tilts toward the soulful rather than the political, and could be this year's humanistic indie hit."[15]

Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor graded the film C+, criticizing Richard Jenkins' "underpowered" performance and the film's "squishy humanism."[16]

The film was named best of the year by the Washington Post, the Charlotte Observer, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.[17] It also was cited as one of the year's ten best by numerous publications, including the Chicago Reader,[17] the Philadelphia Inquirer,[17] the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,[17] The Hollywood Reporter,[17] The Wall Street Journal,[17] and the New York Post.[17]

Box office

The Visitor earned $86,488 on four screens during its opening weekend and on its widest release was only on 270 theaters.[2] During its 26-week first run, the film rose to 10th most popular for a two-week period.[18] The Visitor grossed $9,427,089 domestic and $8,195,883 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $17,622,972.[2]

DVD release

The DVD was released on October 7, 2008. Viewers have the option of either widescreen anamorphic or fullscreen formats. Bonus features include commentary by the writer/director Thomas McCarthy and star Richard Jenkins, plus deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, a history of the djembe and instructions on how to play it, and the original trailer.

Awards and nominations


  1. ^ a b Douglas, Edward (April 8, 2008). "Exclusive: Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor". Retrieved 2010-01-07. 
  2. ^ a b c "The Visitor (2008)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2010-01-05. 
  3. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (2009-02-23). "'The Wrestler' tops Spirit Awards". Variety. Retrieved 2009-04-02. 
  4. ^| Interview with Richard Jenkins
  5. ^ review of The Visitor, July 4, 2008.
  6. ^ Kramer, Gary (April 24, 2008). " Interview: Haaz Sleiman". Retrieved 2010-01-08. 
  7. ^ Orndorf, Brian (April 9, 2008). "Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy and Actor Haaz Sleiman Interview – The Visitor". Retrieved 2010-01-08. 
  8. ^ Bell, James (July 2008). "Rushes: Interview: Strangers in a Strange Land". Sight and Sound 18 (7): 10. ISSN 0037-4806. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ New York Times review
  12. ^ Chicago Sun-Times review
  13. ^ San Francisco Chronicle review
  14. ^ Rolling Stone review
  15. ^ Variety review
  16. ^ Christian Science Monitor review
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Metacritic 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists
  18. ^ "The Visitor - Movie Reviews, Trailers, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-01-05. 

External links


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