Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website on Friday, May 23rd.
The year is 1921. In the aftermath of World War I, many Europeans fled the war-torn region to find a more hospitable, accepting society on the other side of the Atlantic. Arriving at Ellis Island, these immigrants hoped to achieve the ideal of the American Dream and encounter upward social mobility to make for a better future for their families. The Immigrant‘s protagonist is one of these, a woman named Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) who stands on the outskirts of a boat in the film’s opening shot looking at the Statue of Liberty through the fog. She and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), wait in line to receive citizenship after arriving from Poland; Ewa speaks some English but her sister cannot understand a word. When the inspectors notice that Magda might be sick, they insist that she must stay on the island for at least six months in detox to ensure that she doesn’t contain a harmful disease. Ewa has to find a way to help her sister since they are supposed to meet with their aunt and uncle and begin their new lives. Ewa struggles, though, when she finds out that her relatives aren’t there and that, because she is single, she cannot be sent off alone. She’s going to be deported.
Along comes Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a man looking for English-speaking women who finds Ewa and takes her with him. He seems to be a kind man, treating Ewa with respect and providing her with a place to sleep and live temporarily. She cannot trust him, though, as evidenced by a lingering shot of her holding a knife underneath her pillow while she sleeps her first night there. Ewa has no money and no way to communicate with anyone since she knows no one in the U.S., so Bruno provides her with a job working at his peep show. Women parade around naked on stage while Bruno introduces them as exotic beings from different countries: Egypt and China are the most evident, but all of the women are white and dressed in the stereotypical garb of their lands. Ewa works as a seamstress until Bruno lets her work in the show. She later finds out that prostitution is just as much a part of their job as the dancing. Through all of this, Ewa encounters Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician that has a beef with Bruno but falls in love with Ewa at first sight. Their love triangle dominates the film’s conflict.
James Gray’s film explores the morally corruptible nature of achieving freedom in the United States. There’s a perversion underlying the system, with the film’s opening scene on Ellis Island emphasizing the oppressed nature of women and their inability to stand on their own. Gray emphasizes the distrust and hopelessness surrounding Ewa’s journey, demonstrating that men are animalistic and women are treated as secondary citizens and deserve a better life. The emphasis of most women in the film being prostitutes would generally insinuate that women are promiscuous and dangerous in relation to men, as per usual readings in film, yet Gray’s film is stronger and wiser than that. It showcases that Bruno, as a pimp, is an uncontrolled, violent sociopath who has clear underlying psychological issues. He’s a drunk, emotionally unhinged man that fits Phoenix’s ability as an actor perfectly. This is him and Gray’s third collaboration (after Two Lovers and We Own the Night), and there exists a sense of Phoenix showing the corruptibility of the soul in the pursuit of the American Dream. While Bruno has success, he collapses because of his seedy ambition and instability.
Marion Cotillard is fantastic in the lead performance, fitting the time period with ease and providing Ewa with a strong emotional center. She brings subtlety to scenes that would otherwise ask for obvious emotional cues. A great scene in particular shows her adjusting to her life as a prostitute, dressing herself as a man prepares to leave and creating small talk with seeming ease. But the camera lingers on her face as her wide eyes suggest that she feels none of what she says. Ewa’s descent into morally reprehensible behavior never feels insincere due to the script’s hints to her lack of options. She’s alone in a big city attempting to start a life and have children, but working as a prostitute for an out-of-control man who is driven largely by lust and jealousy does not bode well for her happiness. Renner is equally affecting in a role that asks him to love uncontrollably and convincingly, which he does well. The film takes a few dramatic turns in the final half hour that feel a bit strained in plausibility, but the story’s emphasis on immigration and its effects remain distinctly important and haunting.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)