American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Richard Jenkins is an actor who can move his head half an inch and provide the turning point of a film. That happens in "The Visitor," where he plays a man around 60 who has essentially shut down all of his emotions. A professor, he has been teaching the same class for years and cares nothing about it. He coldly rejects a student's late paper without even enquiring about the "personal problems" that made it late. He makes an elderly piano teacher figure out for herself why she will not be needed again. His lips form a straight line that neither smiles nor frown.
He is forced to travel from his Connecticut campus to New York, to present an academic paper he co-authored. At least he is honest. Protesting the assignment, he tells a colleague he agreed to put his name on the paper as a favor, has not read it, is not competent to present it. He has to go anyway.
He keeps an apartment in Manhattan. Lets himself in. The naked African girl in his bathtub screams. Her boyfriend appears from somewhere. The interlopers are ready to call the police when he explains it is his apartment. They'd been renting it from a crafty opportunist. These "roomers" are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. They immediately pack to leave. He sees them out, then appears at the top of the stairs to tell them they can stay the night. During the film, he will change his mind and appear at the stair-top three times, each time crucial.
Tarek is a virtuoso on an African drum. Walter's late wife was a famous pianist. He loves music, but has failed at learning the piano. One day Walter is walking through Washington Square Park and hears two young black boys drumming on the bottoms of plastic buckets. He stops to listen. After awhile his head begins to move side to side, half an inch at a time, in response to the rhythm. There you are.