Be the drum.

It’s possible that the last three films I saw in theaters would all end up on a list of the best movies I’ve ever seen. This thought delights me, as I hate to hear critics complain that movies ain’t what they used to be. First, there was Wall-E, a triumph of animation, emotion, and just-plain-cuteness, then The Dark Knight, a thrilling, wrenching, deeply smart epic. Now I’ve seen another movie that hit me in that same “beautiful, got to see it again” place, but it’s one that hardly anyone seems to have heard of.

The Visitor is a small movie about big things, an intimate story of four characters and simultaneously a commentary on what’s wrong with the way we all treat each other in this world. I don’t mean that in a convoluted, overly clever, Babel kind of way. This story shows us one man brought into a set of circumstances he couldn’t have anticipated, and connecting with people experiencing the kinds of political problems he hadn’t realized he could care about so much. It gets to the big issues of fairness in a post-9/11 society through characters that we already care about, rather than assuming we will connect to characters just because they are experiencing something unjust.

Our man is economics professor Walter Vale, played to award-worthy perfection by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (a favorite of mine from his days as Nathaniel Fisher, senior, the pesky apparition of their dead father on Six Feet Under). He is the quintessential closed-off curmudgeon, disinterested in his work, disinterested in other people. We know he loves music but not much else, and that he hasn’t managed to make anything of that interest. Reluctantly, he goes on a trip to New York to present a colleague’s paper at a conference, where he will stay in the apartment he has kept in the city for years despite living full-time in Connecticut and never going there. When he gets there, matters become more complicated: some enterprising schemer has discovered this never-used apartment, and tricked a young couple into subletting it.

Our couple is the beautiful but rigid Senegalese woman Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), and the outgoing Syrian man Tarek (fantastically cute and charismatic Haaz Sleiman). They agree to leave, and get halfway down the block with their bags before Walter changes his mind and decides to ask them to stay for a couple of days until they can come up with something else. Walter is always changing his mind at the last minute. It seems to be hard for him to make the right decision until he has made the wrong one first.

Walter and Tarek quickly become friends, bonding over Walter’s interest in Tarek’s djembe drum. Tarek offers to teach Walter to play, and in one of the movie’s most delightful scenes, Walter finally starts to loosen up. Unlikely as it seems to him, he has finally found the way to connect to music that he’s always wanted. He will also play the djembe.

Then things start to go wrong. Tarek is falsely accused of entering the subway without paying by loitering NYPD officers, arrested, and discovered to be in the country illegally. He is held in detention and threatened with deportation. His girlfriend and mother (our fourth lovely character, played by Hiam Abbass) cannot go visit him, because they are illegal too and will be discovered if they show identification. So Walter must do the visiting for all of them, while they try to figure out how to get Tarek out.

A lot more happens after that, in scene after well-written scene, as these characters learn more about what it must be like for each other, and try to help each other through the situation. The actors hit subtle but powerful notes over and over again, and nothing ever feels forced or cliché.

I hope this film gets greater exposure when it is released on DVD, because it is truly great. Some people might think it too simplistic in its critique of our government’s treatment of illegal immigrants, because it doesn’t explore the flipside of the issue, but they’d be missing the point. Yes, the characters speak about the injustice of Tarek’s situation in broad, black-and-white terms, but that doesn’t mean we are also expected to feel this way about deportation. It isn’t about us, it’s about them. Nothing is debatable for them. They are people trying to act rationally while consumed by desperation and love, people who want nothing more than to hold on to the life they’ve made. And they are people I didn’t want to part with when the movie ended, even though I wouldn’t change the ending scene for anything.

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5 Responses to “Be the drum.”


  1. 1 patty July 23, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    i watched a trailer for this at work and wrote it down on my list of movies to check out. but this was last year! when did the movie come out and why did it take so long? i missed it!

  2. 2 Brandi Sperry July 23, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I think it came out in only a few cities back in April, but it’s playing downtown at the Meridian right now. Probably it will be out on DVD soon enough!

  3. 3 Emily July 24, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I’ll come watch, if anyone else goes. Though it sounds like a crier…

  4. 5 Chelsea September 1, 2008 at 5:39 am

    Ooh! I watched this on the plane on the way to London. So good, right?? And to be fair, I was pretty drunk so anything that can hold my attention at that point must be good.


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