Dir. Thomas McCarthy
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ½

Walter Vale is an unhappy man. He is a college professor in Connecticut and a widower, and has receded from his life, except to try to learn the piano, which he can’t get the hang of. Early on during The Visitor, writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) shows him in lonely static shots: his life in a series of solitary tableaus. Walter is played by character actor Richard Jenkins, who played the deceased father on HBO’s Six Feet Under and most recently played beneath his talents in Step Brothers. Here, he gives an internal performance expressed mostly with eloquent body language. His Walter carries himself rigidly, in a closed, defensive posture that keeps others at a distance. To make us understand Walter, Jenkins doesn’t need to say much; we need only watch how he stands, moves, and glares.

Walter is forced out of his comfortable seclusion when he must present a paper at a conference in New York City. He owns an apartment in the city but hasn’t lived there for years, and he is surprised to find a young couple illegally subletting. They are immigrants Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. But the couple has lived there on good faith and has nowhere else to go, so Walter lets them stay. For a while, the immigrants and the professor are mutually suspicious and unsure what to make of each other.

McCarthy and his actors are very good at establishing who the characters are in-between their polite interactions. Gurira conveys a learned caution in Zainab’s early scenes with Walter; she appears to always be searching his charity for a cynical motive, and when we learn more about her and Tarek we understand why. The magnetic Sleiman makes Tarek as open-hearted as Walter and Zainab are guarded. It would be smart of him to be more careful, but he has a trusting nature.

The heart of the film is watching Walter gradually lower his defenses the more he is drawn into Tarek and Zainab’s lives. He becomes more involved than he ever wanted to be, but we believe the decisions he makes; he grows to care for them and feels responsible for them. They have made his life better, and he is unwilling to abandon them.

Tarek is arrested and subject to possible deportation, and this introduces another character, Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass). The second half of the film marks a significant, though not entirely successful, change in tone. Abbass and Jenkins are touching in their scenes together, but the screenplay develops their relationship in a way that I resisted; there’s an intimacy that feels rushed. And the poignant character study shifts to accommodate a political tract about immigration.

These changes in the story aren’t disappointing, per se — Walter has a particularly powerful scene in which he angrily rants to a guard in the immigration facility, “We’re not helpless children!” — but abrupt. A movie with characters as strong as these doesn’t need the added politics or overt romance. Consider the very last shot, which I will not divulge except to say that it is another static shot of Walter, and visually it expresses how far he has come from where he has been. There is nothing extra in the scene, just character; it’s perfect.