James Gray’s The Immigrant is a bleak tale about the American dream as its heroine Ewa (Marion Cotillard) fights for survival in a 20’s era New York. In interviews Gray has stated that his picture is based upon his grandparents’ own immigration but The Immigrant can equally be interpreted as homage to Roberto Rossellini. With its moody atmosphere and emphasis on religion, The Immigrant may be today’s Journey to Italy. While it isn’t the masterpiece that Journey to Italy is, The Immigrant certainly deserves praise for its evocative storytelling despite its lackluster pacing.
As the title simply puts it, Ewa is an immigrant coming from Poland with her sister Magda (Marion Cotillard). But once they arrive to Ellis Island, Ewa discovers that Magda has tuberculosis and is quarantined at Ellis Island. Stranded in New York, Ewa receives help from Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a pimp who invites her to join his brothel. Desperate for shelter, Ewa unwillingly accepts Bruno’s offer but is conflicted with her Catholicism and morality.
Other than Rosselini’s work, The Immigrant draws comparisons with The Godfather Part II in terms of art direction. Indeed the New York scenery is a stunning recall of the jungle-land Vito Corleone lived through and Darius Khondji’s cinematography echoes Gordon Willis’ imagery. But rather than feeling derivative of other artists, Gray emphasizes The Immigrant as his own work. In no way does The Immigrant grow formulaic, with its major twists and turns in the plot not feeling forced or unexpected but intertwined with reality.
The Immigrant’s greatest strength though is the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner (who plays Orlando, Bruno’s magician cousin and rival for Ewa’s affection). Phoenix is perfect for the role of Bruno, a character who is undecidedly a criminal or benefactor. The two-sided nature of Bruno is incredibly suitable for Phoenix, who played a similarly cryptic character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Renner doesn’t have as much screen time as Phoenix but he steals the show as Orlando, a seemingly kind-hearted and earnest man whose past may not be as pure as it seems.
It’s under these comparisons, unfortunately, where Ewa suffers. Cottillard doesn’t do a poor job but I didn’t find her character as compelling as the two male leads. Ewa certainly is a multi-layered character (her Catholic past and her segregation from her family are two key parts to the role), but Phoenix and Renner have the best lines and scenes in the picture. In fact, when they’re not on camera, The Immigrant feels plodding and its sluggish pace prevents it from being a great movie.
While I was somewhat disappointed by The Immigrant, I enjoyed and appreciated much about the picture and I’d be hard-pressed to find a recent film that looked this good and Gray’s ambition is truly powerful.