Mark Reviews Movies

The Immigrant (2014)

THE IMMIGRANT (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Gray

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Illia Volok, Angela Sarafyan

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 5/16/14 (limited); 5/23/14 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 23, 2014

There's a scene in The Immigrant in which a struggling stage magician performs for an audience on Ellis Island. These are the people awaiting news as to whether they will be allowed to stay in the United States or be deported back to their homelands. The magician knows his audience. He sells his famous levitation act by comparing it to the American Dream. It's possible, he says, but one must believe for it work. He tells them that he believes.

The audience buys it. They must. If he can perform the impossible just by believing he can do so, then surely they can escape the purgatory of the immigration system and make lives for themselves in America.

We know better. It's an illusion. It's stagecraft. There's nothing real about the magician rising from the stage and hovering in midair, and as much as the crowd cheers, we suspect that a majority of them know or at least suspect it, too. They want to believe, though, and so no one questions it, lest the illusion falter and the harsh reality of where they are, where they've been, and where they will likely end up being settles in their minds. For one brief moment, it's all possible—that a man can free himself from the shackles of gravity and that they can obtain whatever the American Dream is.

The film is the story of three characters who refuse to leave that moment—no matter how much evidence piles up in front of them that the entire thing is illusive. They are chasing the American Dream and going nowhere fast, in part because it's never really clear if they know what they want in the first place.

The story is pure melodrama, but director James Gray approaches the material in such a subdued way that we might be fooled otherwise. At its heart is a love triangle. At one point is a woman forced into a life of ill repute, and at the other points are the man who put her in that position and the magician, who gives her more reason to hope for a better life than a stage show. She needs both of them. One promises her immediate security at the price of moral degradation; the other argues he might be able to give her more. There's something of a guarantee with one option. Let's just say she's pragmatic about the whole situation.

Her name is Ewa (Marion Cotillard), and in 1921, she and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) have left Poland after the devastation of the Great War. Their parents were murdered in front of them, and now the only family they have left is living in New York City.

Having failed to hide her cough, Magda is taken away to the infirmary by doctors inspecting the long line of hopeful immigrants at Ellis Island. Ewa is denied entry into country because an incident on boat ride has labeled her as a woman of "low morals" (Given what she eventually turns to in order to survive, there's something here about how society's label of an individual or a group can become a self-fulfilling curse).

Her savior is Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), the master of ceremonies at a local burlesque theater called Bandit's Roost who also pimps his female performers. Bruno, who is clearly enamored with Ewa, offers her a place to stay and job as a seamstress for the theater, wanting to keep her for himself and promising that he will rescue Magda from the infirmary. As it usually does for such controlling people, his desire to protect her quickly turns into a need to punish her, and Ewa, believing it is the only way to save her sister, becomes another of Bruno's prostitutes.

The screenplay by Gray and Ric Menello uses the template of melodrama as a means to unravel the broader aspirations these characters represent. The film makes it clear—without having a character explicitly state it—that, through no fault of their own, there is no place for these characters in this America.

Bruno is at least twice confronted with anti-Semitism, and once, it is while he is on the receiving end of a flurry of police batons. He and his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), the magician whose stage name is Orlando, were themselves immigrants, and after decades of trying to scrape by a living, they find themselves in the same position.

Emil can barely get work. It doesn't help that Bruno keeps his cousin from working because of their history with a woman. Bruno is still living in the apartment building where he and Emil were raised. He simply rents more rooms to provide living spaces for his employees, whom he exploits so that he can pay the rent. Ewa is on the same path. She and Bruno split the money for her work in bed, but her half must invariably go toward paying Bruno to help her sister.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji's gorgeous work here is centered on rich golden tints for the interiors, as if the proprietors of these establishments have determined that gilding the squalor will somehow make it more appealing, but there's a scene in a church, where Ewa goes to confess her sins, that abandons it for gloom. It's most obvious in one shot as Ewa steps into the confessional and is enveloped in shadow. She explains her situation and affirms her belief of her damnation in the process of helping her sister to the priest, who offers a simple solution: Stop. It's devotion—to Ewa's sister, to Emil's profession, to Bruno's "girls," whom he twistedly but sincerely believes he is saving—that is these character's undoing, and The Immigrant argues that the most destructive devotion is to the Dream.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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