The Immigrant (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on June 10, 2014

"The Immigrant" introduces us to the bluntest ideal of the so-called American Dream that we've seen in some time: Ewa Cybulska, played by an unforgettable Marion Cotillard in one of the year's best performances, wades through the long line of individuals entering the land of the free with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). But not all is right. Magda has a clearly chronic cough which a Customs official (Antoni Corone) determines is lung disease. She will not be led through to the United States, and what is more, Ewa is now an unescorted woman. Her situation (She has been deemed a woman of low morals following an incident on the boat that is kept under-wraps by screenwriters James Gray, who also directed, and Ric Menello for quite a while, heightening the impact it makes) is as desperate as the era in which she lives (the early 1920s) is unlucky.

This is a stirring and thoughtful examination of the American Dream as seen through the eyes of a portion of the population that needs it most. Much of the modern dialog consists of a certain sect of the political right maintaining that illegal immigrants are trying to "steal" our freedom. "The Immigrant" isn't exactly an eye-opening account of the blanket experience of immigrations gone wrong, but as a study of this particular experience, here is one of the year's best pictures--soulful and alive with ambition and brutally honest about each of its characters. None of them exists in a particular mold or even the one into which he or she fits at the start of it. Characters must deepen to gain extra dimensions, and these are people of complex histories forged with emotion.

Ewa is on the verge of being deported when Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) picks her out of the line and puts her to work. She can sew, and thus begins perhaps the most tragic element of the film: the distortion and deception of the "American Dream" for this woman. She becomes a dancer in Bruno's circus of half-naked female performers and, later, his prostitute when the "unmanly" son of an investor needs pleasing. Bruno is not a good man, but he's trying; Gray and Menello manage to transform him into a person worth empathy, despite his skeevy ways. He even knows from where Ewa is coming, having been brought over on a boat himself with his family.

Bruno has a cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician with the stage name of Orlando who is immediately drawn to Ewa and her desperate plight. He and Bruno have held a longtime rivalry. The way Bruno describes it is fascinating in the way he puts all of the blame on others for what he himself clearly did. The way Emil describes it is as a man bemused by his cousin's stubbornness. Both attempt to free Ewa from deportation, which at first seems all but inevitable. Bruno mistrusts Emil to his very core. This being a measured study of how corrosive the American Dream is to those who seek it with abandon, an collision of ideals is bound to happen.

It's when that collision occurs that makes "The Immigrant" far more than the melodramatic--sometimes irrepressibly so--affair (not a criticism, but an observation) that are the first and second acts. The trio of performances at its center is an unstoppable one, with Cotillard's magnificent internalization of Ewa's desperate situation, Phoenix' skeezy but ultimately pathetic loser, and Renner's sincere performance as an essentially good man providing complex readings of potentially two-dimensional characters (They certainly, in theory, fall into types often seen in melodrama). Melodrama only works if the heightened emotional stakes of the circumstances are enough to engage or to engross. Here is a film that proves it can do both.

Film Information

Marion Cotillard (Ewa Cybulska), Joaquin Phoenix (Bruno Weiss), Jeremy Renner (Emil/Orlando the Magician), Dagmara Dominczyk (Belva), Jicky Schnee (Clara), Yelena Solovey (Rosie Hertz), Maja Wampuszyc (Edyta Bistricky), Ilia Volok (Wojtek Bistricky), Angela Sarafyan (Magda Cybulska), Antoni Corone (Customs Official Thomas MacNally), Patrick Husted (Priest), Patrick O'Neill (Leo Straub), Sam Tsoutsouvas (Oscar Straub), Robert Clohessy (Immigration Official), Adam Rothenberg (Officer DeKeiffer).

Directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello.

Rated R (sexual content, nudity, language).

120 minutes.

Released in select cities on May 23, 2014.