The Immigrant is more than what you expect it to be. Yes, it’s a story we’re all familiar with: trying to make it in a new world, having to make life-altering sacrifices to survive, a land of Davids up against the Goliath that is mass oppression and discrimination. But this is no typical American Dream story. There is no wide eyed wonder, no sprawling shots of midtown skyscrapers, and no lengthy emotional monologues bemoaning hard times or better times to come. Instead, The Immigrant is well-worn, lived-in, sepia-toned, cramped apartments. Any emotions expressed are done briefly, in whisper inside a confessional. Writer/director James Gray has created a world that is achingly beautiful, in which everyone has an American dream, but it’s modest, and dark, and complicated, and they’ll keep it close, right up against their wool vests.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, who has just arrived at Ellis Island after escaping a war-torn Poland with her sister, Magda. Before they can get off the island, though, Magda is detained and quarantined in the island’s hospital after committing the crime of having a cough. From this moment on, every single thing Ewa does is with the singular intention of getting Magda out of the Ellis Island hospital.
When Ewa’s family doesn’t show to claim her, she’s at risk of being deported until she’s swooped up by Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno Weiss. It’s not quite clear if Bruno is saving her or preying on her desperation, but this probably isn’t the first woman he’s “helped” in this way. He gets Ewa a job sewing at the burlesque club he runs, but it doesn’t take long for Weiss to reveal the dark side of his savior complex. At the slightest hint of a lapse in her appreciation, Bruno explodes in a ragey mess, planting his flag in her and declaring his total dominance. Bruno clearly considers himself a master manipulator, and in a lesser movie, Ewa may have been tricked or intimidated into giving him whatever he wants. Instead, Ewa sees Bruno for what he is, a terrible bully, and decides to play his game. Because the thing is, he does have control over her. The world Ewa lives in is one in which “unescorted women” are not let off Ellis Island, and they sure as hell couldn’t survive on their own if they did. So Ewa weighs her options: flounder alone, or learn to balance Bruno’s protection with his terror.
It’s impossible to watch The Immigrant without acknowledging Marion Cotillard’s ship-launchable face. Ewa’s position as a poor but unusually beautiful woman informs everything she’s faced with. Her beauty often seems like a double-edged sword, but one of those edges is awful rusty. At every turn, Ewa is given opportunities because men’s attraction to her, opportunities that are not available to the other women she meets. But every one of those “opportunities” ends with a man f*cking her over, leaving her worse off than when she started. The other women in Weiss’ club lay out her options on the first day she meets them: if she wants to help her sister, she’ll need money, she’ll need to f*ck a lot, she can wait for a white knight to come along, or she’ll have to steal (if she doesn’t mind getting her “head bashed in” if she’s caught). And wouldn’t you know it, those are all the options she explores (save the head bashing… maybe… no spoilers). So the sewing quickly turns to “dancing,” which even more quickly turns to prostitution, all with the aim of making enough money to use Bruno’s connections on the island to get her sister out of the TB quarantine.
The three leads in The Immigrant are a forceful trio. Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno is a mess of desperation, alternating between rageful jealousy and a sad charisma. Cotillard’s Ewa is a tightly contained bundle of strict values, with a pragmatism that leads to dangerous and destructive choices, and a self-induced torture. Gray has been getting some criticism for creating such a tightly wound character. But if you find Ewa bland (and I argue that she isn’t - her emotional range is just as expansive as the male characters, she’s just hyper-focused and has no interest in releasing any energy or emotion on anyone else in this film), Cotillard is anything but. And the two of them together, so contained and tortured, create the perfect backdrop against which to release Jeremy Renner. As Bruno’s cousin, he is first introduced well into the film. While Bruno and Ewa both have a deep well of emotion that they keep tightly covered up, Renner’s Emil (AKA Orlando the Magician, just so you really understand what kind of guy this is) buries nothing. By comparison, he is an enthusiastic puppy, a teenager. He even openly invites the teenaged Romeo comparisons by sneaking through Ewa’s window one night. Emil is everything Ewa and Bruno are not. It’s not immediately clear whether he’s the hero or the villain (or just some guy passing through), but whatever he may be, he is simple. And in the world of this film, that is a thing to be envied.
The real wonder of the film, though, is that while the cast is amazing (and my god, they are), The Immigrant, unlike so many other films, does not rely on an outstanding cast to carry it. Gray’s script and the world created by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Midnight in Paris, Delicatessen, a billion other beautiful movies) make the movie what it is: a gorgeous, fully-realized masterpiece. And there is no hyperbole in that word. The film sucks you in and holds you there. It’s dark and terrible and sexy and hopeful, all mixed up in one giant 1921 New York melting pot.