The Immigrant is the film James Gray has been working toward his entire career. He’s established a unique reputation over 20 years and four features. His first three films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) dealt largely with a world of criminal activity and frayed family bonds, often times between brothers. Two Lovers followed soon after, betraying the first signs of Gray’s thematic maturation. A simple love triangle rendered equal parts beautiful and devastating, the film was both vital and transitional for the filmmaker. His latest, the intimately focused, epically scaled period piece The Immigrant, is, finally, his masterpiece, a classical melodrama of high ambition and fulfilled promise.
Set in New York City, 1921, the film opens with Polish sisters Ewa and Magda Cybulski (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan, respectively) attempting emigration to the United States, only to be detained, the former being processed for deportation while the latter is quarantined for tuberculosis. When Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a mysteriously powerful figure, eyes Ewa being sent to her exile, he exercises his influence to secure her a place on a boat headed for Manhattan. Nowhere to go, her uncle embarrassed of her reputation back home as a “woman of low morals” and thus unwilling to take her in, Ewa receives accommodations from Bruno, who quickly offers her a job in his burlesque theater company. But when the entertainment troupe is soon revealed as a front for a prostitution operation, Ewa resists, triggering a tenuous dynamic between the two of survival and destitution, goodwill and obligation, exploitation and nurturing.
A wildcard in the form of Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a suave magician with motives of equally questionable repute, is soon introduced, inciting tensions in an already volatile relationship—between Bruno and Ewa as well as Bruno and himself, as the two are revealed to be not only professional rivals, but cousins, when the latter returns from Ellis Island at a suspiciously opportune moment. Gray handles these characters and their mounting drama with a natural, delicate hand, turning Ewa from a cautious immigrant into a driven opportunist, Bruno from an honorable samaritan to a stern businessman (and back again), and Orlando from an intriguing sideshow to endearing guardian. The filmmaker doesn’t pit the audience against any of the characters, nor does he neglect their faults or ulterior motives, establishing a fascinating interplay that proposes ethical and moral quandaries that these three consider right alongside the viewer.
It’s immediately clear that Gray is painting on a far grander scale and with a much broader palette here than he ever has before. One of the common sleights levied against Gray is his lack of aesthetic voice; for all their moody noir nods and impressive set pieces, his crime films tend to want for a stylistic signature. Two Lovers, with its overcast hue, dimly lit interiors, and subtly rhythmic editing techniques, went some way toward cultivating a unique impression, and The Immigrant completes the evolution. Shot by Darius Khondji (Se7en, The Game, Amour) with immaculately understated set decoration and costumes, the film is a considerable technical achievement, all burnt browns, washed out grays, and lightly dusted surface space. Budgeted around $16 million, the film looks like it could have cost three times that, the craning photography and richly detailed exteriors recalling nothing less than Sergio Leone’s work on Once Upon a Time in America in its rendering of prohibition-era New York.
But it’s Gray’s work with his actors and his deft balance between modest narrative striations and larger melodrama that lends The Immigrant its power. This is essentially another relationship, even familial, drama for the director, except painted across an epic backdrop, the economic adversity and rumblings of the impeding Depression sent rippling between the film’s otherwise interpersonal contours. Gray is essentially working in classical filmmaking strokes here, building a drama rich with novelistic detail within the confines of a theatrical setup (despite its historical milieu, the screenplay, by Gray and Richard Menello, isn’t based on a written work at all, but rather was inspired by Gray’s father, who grew up during the era). There are moments of emotional devastation here worthy of Shakespeare, the combined power of the film’s arc is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s work or even that of the last generation of epic filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age. Yet these aren’t reference points for an indentured filmmaker so much as antecedents for a skilled director who’s reached his most impressive heights yet, crafting a personal work of both intimate passion and grand tragedy.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.