Marion Cotillard is an icon of suffering in James Gray’s somber passion play The Immigrant. As he did in Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, Gray introduces us to a dysfunctional family and a criminal subculture prone to preying on the weak, going light on narrative twists to focus on the milieu and the interplay between his main characters. But where the best of his work sweeps you up in a tide of emotion and imagery so strong you aren’t tripped up by on-the-nose dialogue or underdeveloped characters, The Immigrant sometimes makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
In the film, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Bruno Weiss, a pimp posing as a burlesque showman, and Cotillard as Ewa Cybulski, a traumatized Polish refugee. Ewa survives the Cossacks and a harrowing trip to Ellis Island (we don’t see what happened to her on the way there, but we hear about it later), only to find her tubercular sister whisked away to the infirmary while she’s slotted for deportation, deemed guilty of false charges she gets no chance to contest. From almost the moment Bruno steps into this rigged game, bribing a guard to get her off the island and into his tenement flat, it’s clear to Ewa—though not to him, since he half-believes his own lies—that Bruno is more predator than protector. But no amount of wary self-awareness can save her from complete dependence on him, or from the barrage of assaults and humiliations he subjects her to, a painful parade of abuses that make her into a kind of Christ figure for those “tempest-tost” refugees to whom the Statue of Liberty, the film’s opening image, has so often broken her promise.
Phoenix is touching as a broken, self-doubting man posing as a winner. At first, as Bruno blusters his way around his sleazy world, trying to impress his new prisoner/crush, the slump-shouldered slouch that Phoenix often gives to his characters is hardly noticeable, but the character winds up a twisted homunculus, temporarily crippled by a bad beating and writhing in a bubbling stew of self-loathing—until Ewa, in effect, blesses him.
Gray spells out his theme of guilt and redemption when Ewa confesses her “sins” to a priest or tells an aunt that she believes God sent her Bruno to teach her the importance of forgiveness. But those speeches feel redundant, like the frequent references to the sister who keeps Ewa tied to Bruno, since only he can get her off the island (or so Ewa believes). This primal, uncomplicated story is best when Gray relies on his actors’ faces and body language to tell the story.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes the film’s early-20th-century New York City look both claustrophically dark and gloomily gorgeous, finding richness in its chocolate-y browns and blacks and golden gaslight, and Cotillard suffers beautifully in it. But the period details so faithfully recreated by the production designers, and the encounters set up by Gray and his late co-writer, Richard Menello, sometimes feel as over-engineered as Ewa’s speech about forgiveness. It’s interesting to learn that performers were sometimes brought in to entertain the detainees at Ellis Island, but it’s heavy-handed when the magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who performs on the night Ewa spends there promises the detainees the American dream. And the ending feels like one of Bruno’s semi-self-deluding cons, beautifully framed but ultimately unconvincing. After Gray has gone to such pains to bring this perilous, pitiless world to life, why should we believe his implicit promise that Ewa will beat the system?
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.