04/16/2008 06:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Visitor : A Bittersweet Ode to New York

Any resident of New York City, past or present, would have to go out of their way (or, rather, never leave their apartment) to ignore the myriad immigrants that now call New York home. Immigrants are as vital to New York, among other cities, as they are a source of controversy. Illegal immigrants are just as vital, but also deportable.

Such is the issue at hand in Tom McCarthy's second film, The Visitor. Like McCarthy's critically praised debut, The Station Agent, the characters in The Visitor basically stumble into each other's lives, namely into Walter Vale's life, a professor who is stuck on auto-pilot until a conference leads him back to the Manhattan apartment he hasn't visited in years. It's there that things take a turn for the unexpected.

Walter is played by Richard Jenkins, who so heartbreakingly embodies his character throughout the film you hardly need an introduction to his life; the first shot of his face says it all. He is lonely. He is disengaged. Which is why a surprising connection with Syrian immigrant, Tarek, who's been living with his girlfriend, Zainab, in Walter's apartment, makes the sort of lasting impression on Walter that it does - the sort of impression that inspires Walter to not only learn to play the djembe, but to fight for Tarek's right to stay in the country once he's been detained as an illegal immigrant.

Next to Jenkins' performance, simultaneously austere and full of emotion, the most compelling thing about The Visitor is the beautiful and poignant way New York infiltrates the story. Historically a mecca for immigrants, New York has as much to offer in the diversity of its people, neighborhoods, culture, and food as it does as a symbol of American identity and strength. When asked by Tarek's mother, Mouna, to take her someplace that she and Tarek like to go, Zainab heads straight for the Staten Island Ferry. It's before the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty that Zainab displays her single joyful moment in the entire film, recalling Tarek's excitement at seeing the Statue. Beyond that, we almost never see Zainab smile, the stress of being an illegal immigrant weighing more heavily on her shoulders from the moment we meet her. Tarek, on the other hand, is all smiles (even a few while detained) and, as subtly as we are prompted to consider the "issue" of immigration, he guides us, along with Walter, through a complex but invigorating city.

The image of the Statue of Liberty conjures a more overt subtext, but if you pay attention to the shawarma, the subway, the drum circle in Central Park, the film reveals its poetic nature. The Visitor is propelled by its images and rhythms, less so by its words. In its own artistically disciplined way, it paints not only a dynamic, but also romantic picture of New York, a city capable of seducing someone as close to unconscious as Walter with the simple beat of a drum. This is what I love about New York, the mere fact that every once in a while you have the rhythm of the city at your back, and there is nowhere you'd rather be. It's a slightly altered version of the American dream (no white picket fence, but a pharmacy on every corner). Mouna says it best when she confesses to Walter that even as an illegal immigrant, "You forget. You feel like you belong."

Where The Visitor also succeeds is in not becoming a film with a message. There is no heavy-handed speech about why Tarek should be allowed to stay in the country. There is no filmmaker agenda. Instead we get a story about one man who finds a sense of purpose, and ultimately a sense of freedom, through the spirit, and subsequent misfortune, of another.

That doesn't mean the film doesn't get you thinking. I'll be surprised if anyone walks out of The Visitor not pondering the complicated state of immigration in this country. It's confusing and troubling and, frankly, hard to face. For most of us citizens, it rarely feels like an issue at all. But there's a completely alternative reality for many people living in this country, those who are not citizens, but who make their living and their life here.

Kudos to Tom McCarthy for tackling an issue far bigger than the movie itself in this quietly tragic film. The Visitor is a magnificent example of a film that forces you to examine your surroundings whether you live in New York or beyond, despite not begging you to do so.