In James Gray's The Immigrant, the idea of a family starting anew in the United States is intoxicating enough that life as a coerced prostitute outshines returning to war-torn Poland. Despite being safer physically, the emotional turmoil that American culture inflicts on everyone in this film proves almost as destructive as the struggles they've left behind. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard, all of whom do an excellent job residing in Gray's recreated 1920s America. I haven't seen any of Gray's other features (three of which -- The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers -- also star Phoenix) but he proves more than adept at set design and tone; visual comparisons to The Godfather abound, but Gray traffics in a darker, danker part of town. There's no wealth here, no fancy weddings or gated estates. There are dimly lit apartments and filthy brothels and a gaggle of human beings grappling with existence at the bottom of the food chain.
It's Cotillard that powers the film; as the titular immigrant, she's the one with absolutely no foothold in her new country. After the guards at Ellis Island reject her entry to America and send her sister to the infirmary with tuberculosis, she finds herself with no choice but to compromise her morals and potentially sell her soul for the opportunity to bring her family together in a country that wants nothing more than to crush her mentally and spiritually.
Gray, who both wrote and directed, expertly introduces his themes via throwaway lines or subtle interactions between characters. The Immigrant addresses how ethnicity and religion could cripple a person's ambitions in that day and age, but it also focuses strongly on what it was like to be a woman. Spoiler alert: It was not good.
Both Phoenix's Bruno and Renner's Emil -- cousins who fell out of favor -- long for Cotillard's Ewa, but neither one seems remotely interested in who she is as a person. Bruno wants what he regards as a "pure" woman to (hopefully) fill some deep hole in his heart, and Emil is either a charming braggart aiming to seduce her or a self-centered egotist who wishes to deprive his cousin of happiness (it's left relatively unclear). Either way, no one is attracted to her personality, her work ethic, her tireless quest to start a new life in a terrifying foreign country. They see redemption in her, but only for themselves. She's a means to an end, a hood ornament, arm candy. It's not about love, or even lust, but the desire to be transformed by a relationship.
This doesn't feel like typical male-focused Hollywood filmmaking; it's a stark depiction of how unempowered and hopeless females were in that era. And Ewa, despite being beaten down more times than we can count, succumbs to intense desperation and invests over and over in both Bruno and Emil. The only way she can free her sister from the hospital is through men with money, and so the dance between three people who have little but can't live without more continues.
When Ewa finally finds familial solace in an aunt and uncle she thought were lost to her, it's not long before she's cast out for a moral crime she didn't commit. Her aunt can only look on in tearful sorrow as Ewa is led out into the street. It's one more kick in the pants, a reminder that the old adage about the American Dream and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" was often far too literal.
America has come a long way since the time depicted in The Immigrant, but the disenfranchised and the meek are still kept down. Gray tells a true American story here, one of perseverance and tenacity but also one of sadness, deceit, betrayal and heartbreak. Although a little slow at times and ultimately the same kind of tale we've seen a thousand times before, the performance of the three leads and the subtlety in which Gray gets his point home lift this one above the masses.