Floating in past a misty Statue of Liberty, James Gray’s “The Immigrant” somberly gathers its majesty as a metaphor-rich story of passage and survival. It’s an old tale told with rare precision, channeling grand themes into an intimate melodrama.
Ellis Island, a portal of hope and new beginning for films from Elia Kazan’s “America, America” to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” is here a more complicated rebirth.
In 1921, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives from Poland with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). A cough gets Magda quarantined and immigration officials are set to turn away Ewa (who arrives with rumors of being a “woman of low morals” from the ship). But there preying on such lost, pretty women is Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who, with a bribe and a handshake, pulls her out of the line and brings her to his Lower East Side apartment.
He’s overly courteous in a false, snake-oil salesman way. She’s terrified and wary, and sleeps with an ice pick under her pillow. Bruno, a small-time impresario and pimp, welcomes her into his harem of women — many of them not long off the boat themselves.
DIRECTED BY: James Gray
STARRING: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Angela Sarafyan
RATED: R GRADE: A–
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes; in English and Polish (with subtitles)
They perform strip teases for hooting men in a small theater, and bed them on the side. When they’re turned out of the theater, Bruno takes them to a tunnel in Central Park to find johns.
Cotillard’s Ewa is horrified by the situation she finds herself trapped in, but she’s also resolute to claw her way in New York and to raise money to get her sister out of the hospital. Gray, who co-wrote the script with the late Ric Menello, observes her stealing money from the girls or, to appear healthy for a deportation agent, pricking her finger to redden her cheeks with the blood.
As despicable as Bruno is, he develops a love for Ewa and a contradictory urge to protect her. He rages with jealousy when his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician pursues her.
Surely, a handsome illusionist rhapsodizing about the American Dream — as Emil does in his act — is not the most subtle critique. If Emil embodies all the lies of America, Bruno is its ugly truths: capitalistic and shameless. For Phoenix, always unpredictable, volatile and raw, it’s perhaps his finest performance — one of sweeping contradictions, roiling turmoil and, as if the cherry on top, a late touch of Brando.