Directed by: James Gray.
Written by: James Gray & Richard Menello.
Starring: Marion Cotillard (Ewa Cybulska), Joaquin Phoenix (Bruno Weiss), Jeremy Renner (Orlando the Magician / Emil), Dagmara Dominczyk (Belva), Jicky Schnee (Clara), Elena Solovey (Rosie Hertz), Maja Wampuszyc (Edyta Bistricky), Ilia Volok (Wojtek Bistricky), Angela Sarafyan (Magda Cybulska), Antoni Corone (Customs Officer Thomas MacNally).
James Gray specializes in the type of films that are slowly disappearing from American filmmaking. He doesn’t make big films, but he doesn’t make tiny indies either – he makes the mid-level film, that is slowly being squeezed out of existence for all but the biggest names. He is now 19 years – and five films – into a distinctive career, that while it has not yet produced a masterpiece, has also not yet produced an uninteresting film. The Immigrant is probably his most ambitious film to date – a period piece, set in 1920s New York and centered on a Polish immigrant named Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) who comes to America with her sister and big dreams, gets used and abused, but never really gives up hope. The film is a slow burner – one that takes its time, and gets to know its two main characters inside and out, and forces us to re-evaluate what we think we know about them several times. The period detail is excellent, but this is not a typical costume drama, that we can watch from a distance – like the recent Belle for example – but one whose stakes feel genuine – not like we’re looking backwards in time, but as if we’re confronting the characters head on. I think it’s the best film Gray has made to date.
The first scene of the movie takes place on Ellis Island, with Ewa and her sister Magda in line for processing. Magda is coughing, and is pulled out of line and sent to the infirmary. If she doesn’t get better within six months, she’ll be deported. Ewa is flagged as well when she gets to the front of the line. Her Uncle and Aunt are not there to greet them, like they were supposed to be. There was an “incident” on the boat ride over that flags Ewa as a “woman of low morals”. The processing officer tags as “likely to become a ward of the state” and puts her in the rejects line. She’ll be deported back to Poland.
And that’s when she meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s been watching these girls, and picks Ewa out. He tells her that he can pull some strings to get her into the country. He has a job for her, a place to stay – and he’ll even help her take care of her sister – and eventually get her out as well. It seems too good to be true – which of course it is. Bruno runs an act out of a low rent nightclub of dancing girls in various stages of undress. If the price is right than these are not just dancing girls but prostitutes as well. He sees “something special” in Ewa – and may ever love her. But that doesn’t stop him from pimping her out.
In many ways, the plot outline for The Immigrant sounds like a silent melodrama from the era it is depicting – an innocent, saintly girl gets off the boat, and is taken advantage of my a moustache twirling villain. There is even a “good guy” who wants to “take Ewa away” from her sordid lifestyle in the form of Emil (Jeremy Renner) – a magician she first meets on Ellis Island, who is also Bruno’s cousin and rival. But The Immigrant isn’t as simple as that – Ewa is not quite the saint, Bruno more complicated than pure villain, and Emil isn’t a straight ahead good guy.
The incident on the boat haunts most of the movie – it comes up time and again as a way of thwarting whatever happiness Ewa may achieve. We do not learn what the incident was until fairly late in the movie – but the ambiguity of it for most of the running time, plus what we see Ewa is willing (however begrudging – and at first only when drunk) is willing to do, doesn’t qualify her for sainthood. She is a Catholic girl – who wants to be good – but is also a realist. No matter what, she wants to protect her sister – and she’s willing to do just about anything to do that. She never loses our sympathy however – she is a woman trapped in a world where men make the rules, and can take everything away from her at any time, and she’s powerless to stop them. Her relationship with Bruno is complicated – she hates him, but also loves him in some way – she cannot bring herself to walk away from him. Cotillard’s performance is one of her best – especially in her quietest moments. Gray loves close-ups on her beautiful face, where she is asked to do a lot with little dialogue. It’s a complex web of emotions she feels throughout the movie. Bruno is another complex character and performance for Phoenix – who makes him despicable, jealously, cruel, kind, sympathetic and abhorrent all at the same time. Our impression of Ewa doesn’t really change throughout the movie – she’s a victim, who is trying her best not to be one – but our impression of Bruno changes sometimes on a scene by scene level. What’s remarkable about Phoenix’s performance is that it never seems to contradict itself. His Bruno encompasses these contradictions, but they add up to a whole character. Jeremy Renner is the weakest link of the central trio – not really because of his performance (he’s effortlessly charming throughout) – but because he has the least complex role. He is precisely who he seems to be from the introduction of his character to the end.
The Immigrant is a slowly paced film – it’s a film without much of a plot. Instead, it’s focus remains squarely on his characters – and by the pair of extraordinary performances at its core. Phoenix has long since been Gray’s go-to actor – appearing in each of his last four films. One of his greatest performances – oft-overlooked because it was on the press tour for it that he did his whole performance art, rapper thing – was in Two Lovers. He outdoes that performance here. Gray’s film is a different sort of costume drama. It’s New York is dirty, grimy and filthy. His view of America is far more cynical (and realistic) than most immigrant stories. It’s a dark movie, but an excellent one. Even in a summer where many of the big budget entertainments have been good – The Immigrant is still something refreshingly different.