Professor Walter Vale is a ghost. The death of his pianist wife leaves him adrift on an ocean of silence, utterly and achingly alone. While attending an economics conference, Walter is shocked to discover two immigrants living in his New York City apartment. Instead of calling the police or insisting that the couple leave immediately, this unassuming economics professor does something strange and wonderful. He surprises Tarek, from Syria, and Zainab, from Senegal, by suggesting that they stay. Walter is alone no longer.
Tarek and Walter begin a friendship centered on their mutual appreciation of music. Tarek teaches the reluctant older man to play the djembe. The rhythms of the African drum become a bridge between two unimaginably different men.
When Tarek is thrown into a detention facility for being in New York illegally, Walter hires a lawyer to try to get him released. Tarek's mother Mouna arrives on Walter's doorstep looking for her son. Again, Walter cannot turn her away. The second half of the film focuses on Walter and Mouna's budding relationship.
I found this entire film delightful. Director Thomas McCarthy misses no opportunity to remind us that we all partake of a common humanity. His lens renders the lives of immigrants dignified.
As with most great art, The Visitor defies neat categorization. Ultimately, however, it is a story about redemption. Walter has no reason to believe that Tarek and Zainab have anything that he wants. The immigrants have no reason to expect anything from Walter. But his compassion inadvertently leads him to find exactly what he needs.