The Immigrant’s title and opening shot—a slow zoom out from the Statue Of Liberty, its back turned to the camera—suggest a monumental scale and subject. It’s not An Immigrant, but The Immigrant—a drama about New York in the early 1920s, lit gold and gray, set on bustling streets, in cramped apartments, and within the chilly holding quarters of Ellis Island. A magician levitates before an audience of detainees, who are awaiting deportation back to their homelands. “Don’t give up the faith, don’t give up the hope,” he says at the end of his act. “The American Dream is waiting for you!” Strippers in exotic costumes, eroticized immigrants, turn tricks on the side. When they fall on hard times, they put on boas and headbands and ply their trade in a public park. “The daughters of millionaires!” shouts their pimp to anyone within earshot. These are the cornerstones of national myth, eroded by ambivalence and irony. The visual and thematic palette immediately brings to mind Michael Cimino’s once-maligned Heaven’s Gate—except that The Immigrant accomplishes more in two hours than Heaven’s Gate did in nearly four.
Cimino’s epic was supposed to be the big Tolstoy novel of American cinema, but its sweep and historical detail end up overwhelming its characters. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, because the point of Heaven’s Gate, as both a narrative and an audiovisual experience, is to show American capitalism’s rotten origins. Still, even Heaven’s Gate’s fans (including this writer) will admit that it’s hard to give a damn about most of the characters, and that the movie’s “romantic” scenes, however lovely to look at, tend to drag.
The Immigrant’s writer-director, James Gray, builds his movie in the opposite direction, from the characters down. Gray is the most underappreciated of this country’s major filmmakers; his movies distill a century’s worth of American feature film—a little late silent cinema here, a little New Hollywood there—into a distinctly personal style. They’re the kind of works that could only be movies but tend to provoke cross-medium comparisons (“operatic,” “painterly,” “novelistic”), because their ambition lies in trying to grasp something outside of cinema. In Gray’s style, everything is motivated by how it conveys human experience. Even in directing something as simple as a shot of a character walking down the street, Gray’s main focus will be on evoking what it’s like for that person to move through that particular space, within that particular community, at that specific time of day. His style is less a sensibility than a kind of tuned sensitivity. If he cuts to a wide shot, it’s not because he wants to establish the location, but because that’s how a character feels right then—small, alone within a vast emptiness, or disoriented by a crowd.
Perhaps it’s because of this human element that The Immigrant never comes across as an American Dream hatchet job, all broken promises and crushing reversals. As a matter of fact, it centers on three of the most fully realized characters in contemporary American film. The Immigrant derives its thematic heft from their emotions and actions, and from the relationships it establishes and maintains with them.
The first of these to be introduced is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island alongside her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The Cybulska sisters are branded as undesirables: Magda is showing signs of tuberculosis, and Ewa has been identified as a woman of ill repute by the captain of the ship they arrived on. While begging to be allowed into the U.S., Ewa meets the second major character, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who tells her that he has ties with an immigrant assistance organization. He can take her to the mainland right away and will help her return for her sister later.
Ewa travels with Bruno to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she learns that he works in a tiny basement burlesque joint. During the show, he serves as emcee for the strippers; after hours, he pimps them out to the customers. In a lesser film, Ewa would be naïve and Bruno would be charming. He would deceive her into prostitution. Eventually, she would realize that he would never help her reunite with her sister, and thereupon come to understand that the American Dream is nothing more than a lie—a pimp’s come-on, or some other simplistic metaphor.
But in The Immigrant, Ewa is not naïve and Bruno is not charming. He is awkward and weak-willed. He regrets what he does for a living, but not enough to stop doing it. He cares about Ewa, but not enough to stop exploiting her. “I hate you, and I hate myself,” she says to him in a pivotal scene, yet the viewer gets the sense that she only half-means it.
Gray has an uncanny ability to convey the unspoken. Take, for example, something as simple as Bruno’s Jewishness, which is as integral to his character as Ewa’s Catholicism is to hers, but is never mentioned in the dialogue; instead, it comes through in less explicit ways. When Bruno first walks Ewa through the Lower East Side, he tells her that the neighbors don’t mind him because he speaks Yiddish. It wasn’t unusual for non-Jewish people in New York’s immigrant hubs to know at least some Yiddish, but Bruno’s tone of voice is fake-casual and the comment, though offhanded, seems forced, as though he were dodging a question that Ewa hadn’t yet asked. The implication is that Bruno is Jewish and that he has lived in this neighborhood his whole life, and that both of these things embarrass him. In a later scene, when Bruno follows Ewa to confession, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji frame and light the interior of the church in a way that emphasizes its strangeness. Beams of light cut through the stained glass window. Columns jut oppressively into the space. As Bruno tries to make his way toward the confessional, it becomes obvious that he has never been inside of a church, but doesn’t want anyone to know.
Gray’s art lies not in merely implying the unspoken, but in making it observable and unambiguous—something felt, rather than suggested. Phoenix has starred in all but one of Gray’s features, developing his approach to character as Gray has developed his methods as a director; at this point, the two are so perfectly in sync, that it’s hard to tell where Phoenix’s performance ends and Gray’s visual style—Gordon Willis crossed with late 19th-century painting—begins. Character is indistinguishable from composition.
Though The Immigrant features one of his best performances, it’s hardly a Joaquin Phoenix one-man show. What makes Phoenix’s role so impressive is the fact that he and Gray manage to develop Bruno into a fully fledged tragic character, even though he is neither the protagonist of The Immigrant nor the main driving force behind its plot. Gray has a gift for drawing rich, naturalistic performances out of actors (Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, and Vinessa Shaw have all done their best work in James Gray movies) and rendering them vividly with the camera. Nearly every image is a portrait, which creates the illusion that the movie emanates from the characters.
This is compelling filmmaking, but it doesn’t necessarily make a great film. Rather, what makes The Immigrant a great film is the way in which Gray uses actors and his mastery of the unspoken to create a tremendously lived-in, felt-through world. Every space—public or private, interior or exterior—feels authentic, historically and emotionally. (Incidentally, The Immigrant is the first film to actually shoot on Ellis Island.) The women’s bathhouse where Ewa goes after meeting Bruno, the café where he introduces her to burlesque boss Rosie Hertz (Elena Solovey), the Brooklyn walk-up where Ewa meets her relatives and is rejected by them—these register not as sets, but as real places, shaped by years of comings and goings and by accumulated experiences. And because Gray never foregrounds their authenticity, composing every frame around the characters rather than the decor, they feel even more real. They have smells and temperatures.
Gray uses this sense of on-screen reality to bring a tragic story of survival on the margins to life. In terms of texture, The Immigrant is a great film; emotionally, it’s a masterpiece. Along with Ewa and Bruno, the film has a third major character, who isn’t introduced until close to the halfway point: the impulsive, alcoholic illusionist who calls himself Orlando The Magician (Jeremy Renner, in his finest performance to date). Orlando’s real name is Emil, and he is Bruno’s cousin and onetime romantic rival. Instantly smitten with Ewa, Orlando/Emil offers her a chance to leave New York and start a new life with him.
Again, in a lesser film, Ewa, Emil, and Bruno would form a love triangle. They don’t. Ewa doesn’t love Emil or Bruno, and it doesn’t seem like Emil or Bruno really love her either, though they try. They want to love her, because she represents an opportunity for redemption. Loving her is an impossible dream; they understand that it’s impossible, and are comforted by this impossibility because it proves that there is a bigger world just out of reach, something beyond dingy alleyways, peeling wallpaper, and drinking money. In The Immigrant, the American Dream is just that—a comforting impossibility.
In the face of Ewa—the self-styled survivor, always moving forward—The Immigrant finds the whole gamut of emotion. In an era of quick cutting, when close-ups have largely lost their purpose, The Immigrant’s locked-in one-shots serve as a reminder of their emotional power and intimacy. Alone in a confessional or a dressing room, searching for her sister in a crowd, or looking at Bruno from across a café table, Ewa expresses a range of complex feelings. Her reactions are completely specific to her character, and to the time and place she lives in; they are not universal, but they are completely relatable, because of how Gray captures them and because of the context he creates. If The Immigrant is a redemption story, then it’s about the redemption of this particular building block of cinema. As the camera locks in on Cotillard’s eyes, the screen ceases to be a surface.