Writer-director James Gray is an under-appreciated American gem. When people say “they don’t make em like they used to,” they probably haven’t seen the director’s films. Even when he subverts genre, like he often did with We Own the Night, he doesn’t get much credit. At his best, he makes the familiar feel new, which is the case with his latest film, The Immigrant, a beautifully crafted movie.
Like The Yards, this is a morally complicated drama that harkens back to the 1970s. When Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) comes to New York to start a new life, she is no angel. She’ll steal to survive, which is something Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a low-rent pimp, sees in her. It’s what draws the buffoonish showman to Ewa; he can’t help but to relate to her. When Ewa reaches Ellis Island, her sick sister is taken from her and they threaten to send her back to Poland. The only person to offer her any help is Bruno. He gives her a home and a job, working as a showgirl and prostitute.
She does what she has to, and Gray could’ve written her as the naïve type, but instead he has Ewa be a woman who has experienced true hardship. She comes to New York for the American dream, a dream which you can’t buy at face value, and the same goes for the the three leads in The Immigrant. There’s more than meets the eye with Gray’s characters: Bruno isn’t simply a buffoon, but a man with real feelings; the magician who lightens up Ewa’s life, played by a slightly underused Jeremy Renner, may not be so wonderful; and Ewa herself isn’t the innocent and unassuming girl we’re first introduced to at Ellis Island.
Cotillard is good as Ewa, especially when she manipulates Bruno or does things she’s not proud of, but this is Phoenix’s movie through and through. He gives a performance done with nuance, slowly revealing itself over the course of the story. Bruno’s arc is a powerful one, and while at first it’s easy to laugh at him, by the end, you truly feel bad for laughing at his expense. It’s reminiscent of Phoenix’s performance in The Yards, where the tough guy routine plays as more of a front to hide his insecurities.
In addition to how much the actor makes you empathize with Bruno, he’s also quite hilarious in the role. The story of an immigrant who sells her body to save her sister could’ve easily been an overly self-serious drama, but that’s not the movie Gray made, thankfully. His script is full of life, humor, tragedy and kindness. He doesn’t punish Ewa at every turn. Instead, she sees genuine acts of kindness, even at Ellis Island, a place meant to symbolize a new beginning, but only serves as a reminder how hard dreams are to achieve.
The final shot of the film really says everything about both her’s and Bruno’s journey. Without spoiling anything, this beautifully composed final moment shows two characters back where they started, but heading towards entirely different futures. Their tragic stories are reinforced by Darius Khondji darkly lit cinematography, which makes The Yards look colorful and flamboyant by comparison. It’s a striking aesthetic that serves the drama well, especially when Ewa is shown confessing her sins. It’s the character at her most regretful, and it’s filmed as such.
Gray’s camerawork is controlled and well-mannered throughout. He’s never been a showy filmmaker, always serving his stories with small deft touches that, ultimately, all add up to a grander picture. His movies leave a lasting impression, managing to hit you even harder once you’ve left the theater. The same goes for The Immigrant. The experience goes beyond the cineplex, and the sting of that final shot grows stronger and stronger after the end credits have rolled.
Thanks to some fantastic performances and sharp direction from James Gray, The Immigrant yields a powerful result.