The Immigrant Directed by: James Gray Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner Running Time: 2 hrs Rating: R Release Date: May 23, 2014 (Chicago)
PLOT: A Polish woman (Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island and is recruited to the NY underworld by a mysterious man named Bruno (Phoenix).
WHO'S IT FOR? Those open to a different variation on an American dream tale.
Just in time for a national holiday is the release of two films about surviving as "the outsider" in a tumultuous American society. X-Men: Days of Future Past isn't the only movie that opines about how the outsider will survive in America, but James Gray's The Immigrant does too, a film that takes the story of a Polish woman traveling through the course of Ellis Island and deconstructs her tale as an American nightmare. While both films are set in different past periods, they speak to alternative contemporary struggles within America, especially as its citizens and hopeful citizens struggle for their own opportunities in the land of the free.
The title character is played with excellence by Marion Cotillard, a woman who travels to Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) from Poland after witnessing the murder of their parents. When her sister is taken out of commission due to her lung disease, Ewa is alone on the fringes of a country's entrance, but the nation that doesn't allow unescorted women into the country. Without her sister, she has to go back to Poland.
Ewa is given her first sense of opportunity by an imposing man who has power because he knows the right people, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). While keeping vague the means in which he has such power, he recognizes the problem faced by Ewa, and offers to help her get into America, and into a job that will help her pay for her sister's bills while she remains in care on Ellis Island. After a night's sleep Ewa understands what Bruno's business is, that of creating fantasies for men to ogle at in a seedy underground bar that sells liquor during Prohibition. With a complete look of disillusionment on her face, Ewa is recruited to join in the nude show, dressing up in a long silver garment as Lady Liberty, her own crushed dreams broadcasted on her face.
The exploitation of Ewa's body takes darker turns, and soon she seeks an escape from a life that tempts her to feel like she is worth nothing. She then finds warmness when she meets a magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who provides her with the opposite feelings of her previous stateside experience.
The Immigrant is a thorough deconstruction of America, along with its parts and participants who have collectively constructed a warped ideal of achieving success within a land where everyone wants to get theirs. The instrument of liberty within the pursuit of happiness has become marred by the fantasy within success, and those (like Phoenix's storytelling pimp, or Renner's magician) who are trying to preserve its wonder.
The Immigrant begins this idea by seeing Ellis Island through a non-American's point-of-view, taking away the shiny romanticism bestowed on it by American history over time, that sequence from Hitch with Eva Mendes' character finding out her family roots be damned. For The Immigrant, Ellis Island is a representation of America's selective opportunity. Arriving to the shores has no guarantee, especially with the priorities of those in charge. However, its existence is enough to inspire those that something real exists beyond the ugliness. A woman being held at Ellis Island for unknown reasons says to Ewa, "It's terrible the way they treat us ... like we are nothing." To which Ewa, the two-time visitor of the island responds with pride, "I am not nothing."
After leaving the island, Gray's film begins to unfold with its consciously old-old-old plot line, as direct as a "small town girl living in a lonely world" setup for a film even like Showgirls. The sweeping effect of Gray's film is that he takes this story and its characters and expands their poetic significance to an endless horizon. As it welcomes many different interpretations outside of its literal story hook, The Immigrant becomes most fascinating when it examines the institutions that Americans have very direct relationships with as a part of their own survival in America. It expands to cover a vast amount of ideas including the parallels between believing in America's opportunity and also believing in God, the dark personal relationships borne from necessities to survive capitalism, or even the fascination a country has with the idea of money being made, even if wealth is just the fake backstory for a prostitute. One of Gray's master strokes is in creating a story that is singular yet similar, but then entirely expansive to cover the country that so inspires this tale. Gray writes with a sad pen in The Immigrant, but throughout such tragedy, there is a hope for human connection in the country however sparse the opportunities may be.
Gray's tale is imbued with its importance as well by its three lead performances, especially those of Cotillard and Phoenix. Speaking pages upon pages of Polish dialogue, Cotillard presents a woman who goes through the American alien wringer. Throughout, Cotillard has such an accuracy in her dramatic touches, maintaining the human aspects within Ewa even when the story reaches its potentially melodramatic turns.
Equally as stunning is Phoenix, an outwardly devious man but one who the actor paints to have conflicting intentions. When he interacts with Ewa, even when the business regards telling her what to do with her body, there is a disturbing sense of sincerity in his manipulation. As if, underneath his own greediness, he has feelings he must ignore in order to possess her. Striking as well are his scenes as an announcer for his naughty cabarets; he repeats the script with sarcasm, he too becoming a performer who has become a victim of peddling escapism.
The tale of The Immigrant is that of an underdog itself. While the movie opened last year's Chicago International Film Festival (with James Gray in attendance), the film didn't have a scheduled release in the city until this past Monday. Hopefully that last minute addition won't pass over viewers, as this movie embarks on the same excavation into self-destructiveness as previously adored movies solely focused on the red, white, and blue. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, or Spring Breakers, The Immigrant submerges audiences in a despairing yet allegorical filth. Even if the karma of excess plays a massive part, the damage to nationalistic nonpareils is done. Like these films, the Immigrant leaves audiences clutching their ideals, and even their perspectives of patriotism, to help make sense of it all.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10