The Immigrant, James Gray’s first new film in five years, paints a bleak picture of modern American history. Set in New York in 1921, the film follows Marion Cotillard’s Ewa, a Polish Catholic immigrant arriving at Ellis Island with with her sister, from whom she is soon separated due to a tuberculosis diagnosis. Alone, abandoned, frightened and in danger of deportation right back to a dead end life in war-torn Europe, she throws herself at her only option for freedom, an unscrupulous businessman named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). Her trials do not end with her escape from the island, as Bruno’s mean for supporting himself prove to be less than legal and less than moral. forced into servitude and eventually prostitution in order to subsidize her sister’s care and release, Ewa is at the whim of Bruno’s obsessions and desires. The plot stirs itself up when Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) arrives and becomes taken by Ewa’s beauty, much to the chagrin of his jealous kin.
Gray and his crew have designed The Immigrant to look like a living sepia tone photo from a history textbook. Earthy browns and washed-out grays abound. It is a dour and suffocating environment, especially for a woman with no home, no family and no money. It takes some time to get going, as Cotillard’s paralysis in the face of these new experiences and Bruno’s blackmailing her into his burlesque show turned prostitution ring is a slow burn. It’s an odd structure, in that the process of Ewa coming out of her skin a bit and gaining the sort of confidence that should make Cotillard more exciting to watch on screen as an actress is a product of the character’s moral degradation. As the pacing and acting starts to open up, a sense of disappointment sets in, though this does appear to be intentional. The practically mute Ewa we see early on would not be the correct foil for the love triangle with Bruno and Emil that pushes the plot forward toward more animated waters.
Renner’s approach is particularly fascinating for how much it stands out compared to the rest of the cast. In a world populated by a host of Eastern European immigrants in Bruno’s harem, all led by Phoenix and his stilted, breathy, labored delivery, Renner’s distinctly modern accent work and vocal phrasing sticks out. These distinctly period mannerisms clash so heavily with Emil that it seems like he must be from another world. He moves so quickly in relation to the world around him (a good trait to have for a magician) that he cuts a striking profile on the screen. Phoenix is about as far on the other end of the spectrum as can be. Ever since his commanding turn in The Master, Phoenix has perfected the concept of acting as pain. Bruno may not have the same level of intensity as Freddie Quell (and who does?), but clearly the act of simply existing takes an immense toll. This method does bring with it a certain nontraditional charisma, the sort of which could easily result in the ability to collect and and exploit wayward souls at Ellis Island. Bruno and Emil’s contrasting attitudes are an undeniable combustible element, but they are nothing of note without a spark.
That spark is Cotillard, who continues to be an actress of immense talent and range. Ewa is a maelstrom of conflict and change, with a difficult and complex story arc. Pinballing from hope to despair to fear to reticence to acceptance and so on, Cotillard is a magnetic presence on the screen. This is her story, and it is not a particularly heartwarming one. Her journey from naive Polish ex-patriot to cynical woman of the night feels earned and genuine, in part because Ewa never loses her sense of self. Her prime motivation is always her sister’s well being; all of her actions are made through that lens, even more so than her own survival. She is a noble woman, proud but not afraid to get her hands dirty if that gets her any closer to reuniting with Magda. This is one of Cotillard’s finest performances, fragile as the thinnest glass but with a heart as unyielding as steel. She plays off Phoenix and Renner wonderfully. As the anchor of The Immigrant, James Gray could not have found a better rock than he has here.
As a dark, cynical exploration of the immigration process of the Ellis Island era and its impact on the American Dream, The Immigrant succeeds admirably. James Gray and his crew have created a compelling view of the nastier consequences of a corrupt society and the innocents who find themselves caught up in the grinder just off the island. Phoenix, Renner and especially Cotillard give memorable performances, and the pace of the plot builds nicely over the course of the film’s two hours. As it transitions from the second to the third act, it gets stronger and stronger, culminating in a potent final sequence and a beautiful final shot. It is an uncompromising vision and often a tough sit, but more than a worthy one. For a prestige film, The Immigrant takes itself seriously and deftly avoids the pitfalls that can often trip up those festival darlings and Palme D’or finalists when they reach the level of public consumption.