The American Dream isn't so much hopeful as it is ugly and costly in James Gray's bleak and mildly affecting period drama, The Immigrant, a film that boasts a stellar cast doing top notch performances. Gray, who directed the melancholy Two Lovers and crime stories like We Own the Night and The Yards, paints a bleak picture of America in the 1920s, a time when immigrants were arriving on our shores by the droves, wrapped in the embracing shadow of the Statue of Liberty. This is how Gray's film begins, when that promise of a brighter future still burns, only to be extinguished in ugly and melodramatic fashion.
Marion Cotillard is Ewa, a Polish immigrant arriving in America along with her sickly sister, Magda. When Magda is taken away due to her illness, Ewa is left alone to fend for herself. But with reports from the ship claiming she is a woman of loose morals, the threat of deportation looms. Joaquin Phoenix is the instantly-shady Bruno, who arrives in the nick of time and just happens to be able to get Ewa out of her predicament. He smiles the smile of a wolf, but she is too desperate and naive to notice, at least initially. Ewa is a survivor, that much is clear, and she'll do anything to secure her future and rescue Magda. Unfortunately, Bruno recognizes that, too, and soon forces her into his employ as a prostitute.
But there's more to Bruno than just wanting to cash in on her beauty. He's fallen in love with her, yet still has no problem pimping her to his rich clients. It's another complicated and tightly-wound performance by Phoenix, who seems to find newly dark corners of the human psyche with every turn. Bruno is jealous and dismissive, quick to violence and to comfort; he values her as possession but not as a person, while all Ewa wants is escape. She finds a potential lifeline with the arrival of Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a spirited magician and Bruno's estranged cousin. The rivalry between both men ignites quickly and threatens to consume everything Ewa has been degrading herself for.
Co-written by Gray and the late Ric Menello, the high-wire script is best when exploring the volatile dynamic between Ewa and Bruno, which is probably more hate-hate than love-hate. The late arrival of Orlando into the mix is just one of many contrived developments that sap the film of its energy and distract from a great opportunity to really dig into an ugly and rarely discussed corner of American history. Cotillard can say more with her expressive eyes than others can with their entire bodies, and she gives more depth to Ewa than the screenplay provides. Forgiveness and redemption are the themes at play here, seen through the lens of characters who have known neither for too long. There's little room for faith or hope in Gray's version of America, the gloom captured in disheartening tones by cinematographer Darius Khondjil. Gray's willingness to indulge in that dreariness prevents The Immigrant from being all that should be.