Like all movies by writer/director James Gray (‘The Yards’, ‘Two Lovers’), ‘The Immigrant’ is a melodrama that the filmmaker somehow mines for genuine human emotion. His great talent lies in finding the place where filmmaking clichés and real life meet, and delivering the type of old-fashioned, adult-driven entertainment that isn’t supposed to be made in America anymore. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s certainly a memorable one.
A particularly doe-eyed, soft-voiced and vulnerable Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant named Ewa as she stumbles into New York in 1921. After her sister is hospitalized on Ellis Island with tuberculosis, a series of believably unfortunate events sees Ewa fall into the hands of Joaquin Phoenix’s old-timey scumbag. He presents himself as a good Samaritan looking to help ease Ewa into American life, but it quickly turns out that he’s a pimp who preys on women in her desperate state and drives them into stripping and prostitution. Determined to help her sister, the unfortunate woman falls into the trap and a tale of degradation and desperation begins. Eventually, salvation appears to arrive in the body of Jeremy Renner, who plays Phoenix’s magician cousin. He seems like the opposite of Phoenix in all the right ways, but that could all be a con, couldn’t it?
‘The Immigrant’ tells an all too familiar story. Within moments of kicking into gear, it’s very clear what that story is and where it’s heading. In lesser hands, this could have been a cornball made-for- TV melodrama, and has certainly been told that way in the past. What makes ‘The Immigrant’ work comes entirely down to James Gray’s choices – not the least of which is his pitch-perfect casting of the central duo. Gray never withholds the emotional or weepy extremes inherent in the material, yet he never dwells on them either. The characters might be types, but the filmmaker takes his time to develop them as people. Then, just when you start to get ahead of the plot as a viewer, Gray diverts from the path of least narrative resistance in a way that arrives in the same place through far more meaningful means. Gray embraces the melodrama of ‘The Immigrant’ without ever taking his audience’s intelligence for granted. Yes, this is the movie you’ll expect it to be, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s predictable.
At the center of everything is one of Marion Cotillard’s finest performances to date. Her character might be victimized, but she never plays her as weak. She’s a strong woman in unfortunate circumstances struggling for survival, and Cotillard works her expressive eyes on overdrive. It’s a character too contained and guarded to ever reveal her innermost thoughts, yet the actress always communicates exactly what she’s thinking to the audience through her heartbreaking silences.
Of course, with this being a James Gray movie, Joaquin Phoenix steals the show. The film marks their fourth collaboration together, and at this point Gray knows exactly how to write to Phoenix’s strengths. His character is a horrible human being and yet so pathetic that the actor somehow wins some empathy from the audience. It’s not his showiest performance (that would be ‘The Master’, naturally), but it is one of Pheonix’s most intriguing: a broken man and human leech who is somehow tragic nonetheless.
Gray has a way of getting the best from his actors and that’s very much true of his work with the two leads here. Hell, even the frequently bland Jeremy Renner delivers a memorable character when cast against his stoic type. He’s lovable scamp, but also one who carries an inexplicable sense of menace across the screen with him.
Many viewers won’t connect with ‘The Immigrant’, and indeed the film is far from perfect. This is an unapologetically old-fashioned melodrama filled with the type of flowery dialogue and larger than life gestures that went out of style long ago. It’s not a masterpiece, but Gray at least never mistakes his creation as one when writing or directing. He keeps the drama as small as possible, bucks convention when called to, and captures the period details and gorgeous production design exquisitely without being showy about it. Visuals are lush and romantic without drawing attention to themselves until the final, stunning shot.
‘The Immigrant’ is a wonderfully made piece of work, just not one that feels particularly daring or fresh. It’s the type of adult melodrama that should be standard issue in the studio system and once was, but sadly these days is a specialty item that will be difficult for viewers to even find. Still, if you can seek it out and follow Gray’s film in its own rhythms, a deeply moving and mature cinematic experience awaits.