Generally speaking I hate going to movies made by established auteurs when I don’t already have a working familiarity with said directors. Whenever I’m in that position it always leaves me feeling like I’m showing up to class without having done my homework and it gives me this nervous feeling that I’m going to have to wing it during class discussion and hope I don’t end up sounding like an idiot. Anyway I had that feeling when I went to see The Immigrant having not seen any of director James Gray’s other four films. In my defense, I’m probably not alone in that regard. Almost all of Gray’s films have seemed to fall into some weird cinematic equivalent of “the friend zone” in which they earn generally positive reviews and earn enough money to not be considered abject failures but without ever really taking off in a big way with either critics or audiences. For some reason Gray, like Jerry Lewis before him, has actually pulled off the trick of becoming a lot more popular in Europe where he routinely gets prestigious festival slots and much more enthusiastic reviews. Now seems to be as good a time as any to see if the French are onto something with their support of Gray because his newest film, The Immigrant, appears to be his most ambitious work yet and I didn’t want to miss it.
Set in 1921, the film begins on Ellis Island where a pair of sisters named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulski (Angela Sarafyan) have arrived from Poland looking for a new life. However, things go bad pretty quickly when Magda is found to be sick and put into quarantine and Ewa is deemed to be a likely “drain on society” and put into a queue for deportation. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) she is spotted by a man in a suit named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes the guards to let her leave and proceeds to bring her to his home and offers to give her a job. She gladly takes this offer, but quickly comes to regret it when it becomes clear that Weiss is not the gentleman he seems to be: he’s a pimp who runs burlesque shows and then hires out his dancers as prostitutes. Desperate to pay for her sister’s care and without anywhere else to go in this new country, Ewa reluctantly joins Weiss’ enterprise, but soon begins to wonder what effect it will have on her soul.
Stories about early 20th Century European immigration used to be pretty common in Hollywood, but as those first-generation whites have died off so have their stories. So, from the get-go, The Immigrant feels like something of a movie out of time. That feeling doesn’t end there though, but cause much of what we see in the film feels oddly old-school in terms of scope, pacing, and execution. I say this in part because The Immigrant is not in any way shape or form an “art film.” It might seem like one if compared to, say, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 but it really isn’t. This is simply a traditional Hollywood drama, or more specifically a period drama, that is told more or less straightforwardly. It does not, however, feel obligated to move at some wildly fast pace or to fill itself with one-liners or artificial action. Instead the focus is almost entirely on the characters, which mostly proves rewarding.
Ewa is certainly an interesting person to watch as she suffers through test after test. I would have liked a little more nuance written into the character, as she stand she’s like some kind of cross between Job and Jean Valjean, but I’m sure her story does mirror quite a few real immigrant experiences just the same. Weiss is also a fascinating villain, one who uses manipulation to achieve his selfish means, and the way he occasionally seems to be in denial about exactly what he’s doing also adds to the character. It certainly doesn’t hurt that these characters are brought to life by actors as talented as Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, who are both actors that have proven to be uniquely suited to period roles like this as evidenced by their work in Public Enemies and The Master respectively. Cotillard in particular is given a real opportunity to shine here. She handles the Polish accent perfectly and gets a ton of room to stretch as her character’s life becomes increasingly difficult.
James Gray has given both of these characters a very well realized world to inhabit, and to do so he seems to have performed some miracles on a relatively small budget. The film is said to have been made for just 16 million dollars, which is hard to believe because it’s filled with period accurate costumes and sets, including city streets. I suppose he’s accomplished this by keeping to a relatively limited set of locations and by not going for “money shots.” The film may not quite have the visual grandeur of something like Road to Perdition but it’s certainly up there with, say, “Boardwalk Empire.” The film also sports some gorgeous cinematography (shot on 35mm, of course) by Darius Khondji, whose brownish/amber lighting isn’t a million miles removed from how we’ve come to expect New York tenements to be lit post-The Godfather but it’s beautiful just the same.
Honestly one could say that about much of the film, it’s kind of the immigrant story we’ve seen before, but it’s so well executed that you don’t really mind. It’s the kind of accessible movie made for adults that people claim they want more of, but then don’t bother to support when it’s finally given to them. It’s a movie that’s old-fashioned in many ways; a throwback to a time when movies made at this budget-range didn’t have to be dumbed down but also didn’t need to completely break the mold in order to stand out. I think these movies run into trouble because they don’t necessarily give the masses the simple thrills they demand but also don’t really innovate enough to impress some of the more jaded critics. Indeed the movie could probably be accurately called “middlebrow,” but I don’t think that has to be a pejorative. The movie does have its shortcomings, especially its ending, which involves a character turn that didn’t quite seem earned. It’s a hard movie to really love, but one that’s impossible to not at least admire. We need more movies like this and they shouldn’t just be ignored when they’re given to us.
***1/2 out of Four