The path to the American Dream is paved with pain, heartbreak and suffering. Maybe that’s why so many American filmmakers find it such an endlessly fascinating subject. As noted in my year-end wrap-up, 2013 wasn’t just a banner year for cinema in general but also for the wealth of films that broached the subject of desperate people in search of the American Dream. Big studio blockbusters tackled the subject (The Great Gatsby); award-baiting epics from big name directors examined it (The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle); art house visionaries used it to make a statement on our bankrupt youth (The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers); even vulgar auteur Michael Bay temporarily left behind his blow-em-up toys to give his take on it in Pain & Gain.
James Gray’s The Immigrant would have made a fine addition to that list. After all, it premiered alongside The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring last May at Cannes. In a way though, I’m glad the Weinstein Company, who will be releasing the film sometime next month, chose to forego releasing the film during the heat of the holiday season. The insane award season and taxing release schedule of that period tends to be more accommodating towards films that offer quick, surface-level pleasures than atmospheric melodramas like this one whose slow-burn nature takes time to digest. Leisurely paced it may be but Gray’s film is nevertheless always captivating. Meticulously researched and sumptuously shot, this is simultaneously a romantic as well as authentic vision of the difficulty of the Trans-Atlantic immigrant experience post World War I.
Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who, in 1921, flees to the United States with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to escape the strife in her homeland at the end of the Great War. When we first meet them, they’re waiting in the immigration line at Ellis Island, hoping they’ll get the stamp of approval for a new life. But that dream is halted when Magda, who is suffering from Tuberculosis, is detained by doctors and sent to the island’s sick bay. Ewa herself gets a straight pass to the deportation line after guards learn that she sold her body in exchange medical supplies for Magda on the trip.
Desperate and without any family to turn to for help, she looks to the first (and only) sympathetic face she can find: A well-dressed gentleman named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Although Bruno is reluctant at first, he quickly promises to take her off the island and even help her get Magda out if she comes and works for him. Ewa accepts. What other choice does she have? Unfortunately, the job turns out to be a dancing gig at a seedy bar/theater that doubles as a front for a prostitution ring, with Bruno as its pimp. Recognizing her new place in the world, Ewa seeks to escape her situation but to no avail. But a chance meeting with Bruno’s cousin (Jeremy Renner), a magician who goes by the name Orlando, offers Ewa hope, and a renewal of faith in the new world.
If the plot sounds melodramatic, it’s because it is. Yet Gray, who proved with his previous two films, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, that even genre films can be art, approaches the film like a classic Hollywood melodrama. This is enriched by Happy Massee’s meticulously-researched set design that is so evocative of the period that you think you’ve gone through a wormhole into the past. The sepia-tinted chiaroscuro cinematography by Darius Khonji which calls to mind Gordon Willis’ iconic work on The Godfather films, specifically the Little Italy-centered flashback segments of The Godfather Part II only add to the film’s classical Hollywood allure. The icing here is that Gray chose to center his period piece on a female character, the likes which are very rare in male-gaze slanted Hollywood.
None of it would work as well without Cotillard’s sublime performance, the richest of her career since her Oscar-winning work in La Vie En Rose. Ewa’s plight may seem hopeless but her intelligence and determination to be reunited with her sister keeps her, and in turn, our hopes alive. The way the actress uses her face to convey Ewa’s profound sadness, as well as her disappointment with herself, is staggering. Ewa is no fool; she knows what she’s doing is sinful. She says as much in a heart-breaking scene shot in a confessional where she asks a priest for forgiveness, all while the skuzzy Bruno silently listens.
For his part, Phoenix adds another memorable character to his already impressive oeuvre. One moment charming, the next volatile, Phoenix’s terrific performance renders Bruno both terrifying and unpredictable. But Bruno’s unexpected vulnerability and ultimately good heart mean that neither Phoenix nor Grey is ready to paint him as a villain. One could easily label The Immigrant as a pessimistic portrait of the high price people have to pay to attain the American Dream; there’s enough of suffering here to warrant that label. But it’s also a loving ode to the survival instinct of immigrants, both then and now, and how their tenacity served as the foundations of this country we call home.