Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray & Ric Menello
Starring: Marion Coitillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner
The American Dream, that simulacrum of perfection and success, has been scrupulously examined in a number of films released in the past year. From the party-girl criminals of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to the celebrity-minded teenagers in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring to Michael Bay’s abhorrent bodybuilders in Pain & Gain, filmmakers, mostly established auteurs, are examining what it means to live in a country essentially founded on an illusory sense of entitlement. Most people living in this country nowadays know (or, at least, should) this isn’t how our (oligarchical, downright cruel) society works, but all anyone can do is try and live a life based on these bygone notions of freedom.
The aforementioned films took this idea to its endpoint, dealing with characters so far off the deep end—jaded from real-world banality—that they will do almost anything to reach an easy existence. James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant” portrays a character yet unaware of the Promised Land’s true nature; the totality of her being rests on a false promise.
Her name is Ewa (played to perfection by one of our great actresses, Marion Cotillard), and she has traveled with her sister Magda, from Poland to Ellis Island, to find something greater. Like many immigrants who arrived in New York in the ’20s, she almost immediately faces the disparity of dreams and actuality: Magda, apparently stricken with lung disease, is carried off by the guards and quarantined, leaving Ewa alone and frightened. Along comes Bruno (played by another of our great performers, Joaquin Phoenix), a businessman who decides to capitalize on Ewa’s naivety by offering her a job and board.
It’s clued-in right away, maybe through our own inherited prescience of American culture, that Bruno isn’t the beacon of hope Ewa was envisioning, and the work he is referring to is actually a life of prostitution and burlesque performances. Once Ewa moves in, she is at the mercy of Phoenix’s character, whose initial sympathy is quickly revealed to her as the meticulous planning of a bitter and torn individual (at one point, harshly scolding her for stealing money from the other working girls).
In enters Jeremy Renner’s genial (and pushy) magician character, Orlando (cousin to Bruno), who takes a strong liking to Ewa and tries to save her from a life of degradation. This plan doesn’t fare any better, as both of the men want control over their object of affection, yet have no idea how to go about it. In a particularly wrenching scene, Orlando brings Ewa up on stage at one of his shows–a gesture of imagined romantic kindness–only to have her booed and cat-called off the stage by the rowdy male audience.
It’s moments like these that demonstrate the level the film is working on–it wants the audience to recognize that the thwarted expectations of each character is what it means to be human and make mistakes. The three people in this film act out of their fumbling impulses, and it is what separates them from the “distinguished” non-characters that too often populate films set in a past era. In turn, it lends The Immigrant a large emotional core that, even through its most heightened moments, remains grounded and centered.
On paper, this sounds like an unbearably miserabalist movie. James Gray, who has worked with Phoenix in the past on films like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, is a classical filmmaker whose dense mise-en-scène and flashes of startling humanity have earned him a devoted legion of supporters. Though not without his flaws (Gray, even here, can sometimes come off as a clunky writer), the fandom is mostly justified, and, with The Immigrant, he has made a near-masterpiece of empathy and atmosphere. What separates the material from a standard period piece is the absence of affectations: the dialogue is blunt and filled with urgency, and everything is steeped in opium-imbued, sepia-tinged languor. Gray’s film resides much closer to a classic melodrama (albeit, a highly accomplished one); more Michael Curtiz than Tom Hooper.
Anyone familiar with Gray’s work should know, if anything, that his visuals are his greatest asset, and they have been developing since the stylized camerawork of his debut, Little Odessa. Here he reaches a pinnacle, where every scene and composition is beautiful and laced with symbolism and detailed set design. Right down to the stunning final shot, one of the finest in recent memory, it’s a marvel of ample visual pleasures. What’s more, Gray has finally attuned his script to match his formal depth, bringing out a passionate love triangle-cum-morality play that seems to grow deeper the more one sits on it. The film does not pass judgement on its characters, closing its story with an act of kindness (depending on which way you look at it) that suggests we’re in this life together, for better or worse. It seems he has tapped into something inexplicably special, maybe even fundamental.