It’s a no-win situation describing a James Gray film, be it Little Odessa and The Yards or We Own the Night and Two Lovers. The plots are scaffolding, which Gray, from Russian-Jewish roots, invests with raw emotion and classical rigor. Gray’s films need to seep into your system in a way that short attentions refuse to allow. Screw ’em.
The Immigrant starts in 1921 with Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) arriving at Ellis Island from Poland. Her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is quarantined with tuberculosis while Ewa falls into the creepy hands of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who offers to save her, first with a job and later by pimping her out. Ewa thinks Bruno’s magician cousin, the Great Orlando (Jeremy Renner), may be her salvation. But degradation is always just a step away.
What sounds like undiluted melodrama with the hounds forever nipping at Ewa’s heels is transformed by Gray into a mesmerizing meditation on the broken American promise. Phoenix implodes while Renner sparks, but their characters hold secrets tucked away in the film’s dark-hued corners. It’s Cotillard, recalling icons of the silent screen, whose face reflects the bruised heart of The Immigrant, a timeless film from a director whose work rewards the closest attention.