Thursday, June 26, 2014
The Immigrant Movie Review
The Statue of Liberty has always stood as a beacon of hope, welcoming immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, promising the start of what has been billed as “The American Dream.” The allure of America is often much stronger and much bigger than the reality of most immigrant experiences. The Godfather Part II uses that image to signal the beginning of the rise of the Corleone crime family, one partially realized promise of the American Dream. Vito wanted his son to be a legitimate businessman, but once ensconced in that world of crime, Michael finds it increasingly difficult to extricate himself. The Corleone family success crumbles to pieces by the end of that movie, Michael sitting alone, full of money and power, but bereft of family connection.
Presenting both parallels and opposites to that great American story is James Gray’s The Immigrant. It too opens with a shot of Lady Liberty, but so shrouded in haze and mist it’s essentially out of focus. The promise is there, but unattainable. Riding the ship from Europe is Ewa (Marion Cotillar), a Polish woman traveling with her sister, Magda, to escape the horrors that murdered her parents. At Ellis Island, Magda is quarantined for illness and Ewa is denied entry for an illegitimate address of relatives she’s meant to stay with. Her immigrant experience nearly ends before it begins.
Then she’s plucked out of line by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises her a warm place to sleep and safety from the perils that affect a single young woman on the street. She’s so desperate she doesn’t suspect what we do – that something here is too kind, too good, too humanitarian to take at face value. Sure enough, we discover that he’s a common pimp, running a harem of immigrant women to dance in a burlesque show and also selling them for sex. He has different plans for Ewa, whom he begins to love, not wanting to spoil her innocence. She succumbs not out of personal moral failure, but because only a large sum of money will keep Magda from being deported. Her acquiescence to prostitution is a selfless sacrifice.
His less creepy, far more charming cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner) is a touring magician and illusionist. He’s the guy you book when you can’t get Houdini. He is another part of the American fairy tale: the white knight who will sweep the fair maiden off her feet and save her. He seems at first to Ewa’s savior, but his life is rife with its own share of failed promises and too-good-to-be-true ideals. What neither of these men recognize in Ewa, that they’ve perhaps never seen before in a woman, is a shrewdness, a keen eye and sharp mind for protecting her interests. Yes, she’ll prostitute herself, but on her own terms and for an equal share of the money else she’ll inform the police that Bruno is withholding their cut. She’s new to this world, but not a naïf.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji captures New York of the 1920s in rich, murky shades of brown, sepia, and tan. It’s reminiscent of Gordon Willis’s arresting work on the Godfather films. Khondji also shot David Fincher’s two dreary rain-soaked films – Seven and Panic Room – which give a pretty fair overview of the tones he creates and sense of weight that presses down on the settings and characters. In The Immigrant it may not always be raining, but it threatens constantly, providing a tone of doom and gloom that portends the struggles Ewa confronts. This is a gorgeous portrait of New York in 1921. The production design achieves something I didn’t think possible anymore by creating authentic period New York street scenes. I don’t know if they were shot on location or in a studio, or if they were aided by CGI (I imagine they must have been), but they look incredibly real. The location manager must have found the last couple of streets in Manhattan that could be transformed into something from that era.
Cotillard has a haunting presence and an ineffable quality that makes her somehow perfect for Ewa. She is both delicate and determined and she makes Ewa tragic but not quite pitiable. That is reserved for Phoenix as Bruno, channeling something of his character in The Master to portray this flawed and difficult man with a penchant for irrationality and abrupt violence. The screenplay offers little in the way of explanation for how he became the man he is, but it’s clear he’s a man who simply doesn’t understand how to control his emotions. His cousin Emil is offered as the flip side to his coin. They are two men raised in identical circumstances who nevertheless arrive at two very different ways of life.
This is a richly dramatic tale, probably Gray’s best film to date, and planting him firmly in the milieu of important New York filmmakers. Gray and writing partner Richard Menello’s screenplay depicts not only the struggles of vulnerable immigrants arriving in New York and the conflicts they confront between their old life and new, but also the conflicts of legitimately established immigrants (Ewa’s aunt and uncle) and those newly arrived with besmirched reputations; between corruption in the guise of trusted officials and the people who need to depend on them most. Then there’s a deeper layer, not exposed or explicit in the story, that gets at the heart of New York as a melting pot of difference religious tenets. Emil is a second generation Jewish immigrant and Ewa is Catholic. There’s a conflict between justice and forgiveness that has strikes at the heart of these two religions. It goes all the way back to the crucifixion of Jesus, a man condemned by the Jewish elders who saw the need for justice, but who is a paragon of virtue – a man who died for our sins so we could be forgiven. This through-line carries its way through the problem of The Merchant of Venice and is present in The Immigrant with Emil the Jewish man who eventually commits a crime far worse than running a prostitution ring. His sins make life almost unlivable for Ewa, who still finds it in her heart to accept him for his flaws while he allows a final selfless act to demonstrate his adherence to morality and justice. And for a brief closing moment, Ewa and Emil are mirrored in the frame, each moving on to a future that is frightening and unknown. After all, it is a story of America, full of daunting unfulfilled promise.