If you’ve come here looking for a review of the new Godzilla movie, then you don’t know me at all. I am a refined critic of excellent taste who would never stoop so low as to cover big-budget CGI-fest trash. Jk lol. I’m planning on turning my critical brain off for Godzilla; I just want to enjoy it. So instead I bring you this – a review of my more typical art house fare: The Immigrant, co-written and directed by James Gray (We Own the Night) and starring Marion Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises).
The Immigrant follows Ewa (Cotillard), a Polish woman who comes to America in 1921 with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). When Magda is held on Ellis Island because of tuberculosis, Ewa finds herself relying on Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a purveyor of less-than-legal goods and services, for support. As Bruno leads Ewa down a dark path, a local magician (Jeremy Renner) may represent her last chance at salvation. But does Ewa think herself deserving of such redemption?
The movie that I have just described sounds rote and saccharine, I know, but Gray’s execution is way better than my half-assed synopsis implies. The picture is all about facade. For all official purposes, Bruno runs a show at a local theater, so the idea of “performance” is integral to the film. Every character in the film is presenting a secondary character to cope with what they have to do to get by. Bruno hides his inner petulant child behind a loving and supportive veneer. Ewa hides her self-loathing under faux confidence and forced smiles. Even supporting characters like Ewa’s uncle, Voytek (Ilia Volok), and one of her co-workers, Belva (Dagmara Dominiczyk), show this dichotomy – possibly a side effect of starting everything over in a brand new country – very well.
As good as Gray’s grasp on theme is in this sense, he falters a little when it comes to tone. Renner’s Orlando has the most obvious facade in the form of his stage persona, but once we get to know him as Emil, his earnestness just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world Gray has built around Ewa. His seeming naïveté calls in to question how he could have survived so long in such a harsh world. There are indications of depth to the character, but the script by Gray and Ric Menello only shows a small tinge in him of that dark side that is ever-present in this cold, punishing environment.
Despite this, the performances by the actors are mostly excellent. Renner doesn’t get the most dynamic material, but he handles it well – reminding us that he is a good actor, despite the majority of his recent work. But The Immigrant is really a showcase for Cotillard and Phoenix. Cotillard’s wide, expressive eyes have always been integral to her work, and she gets them involved early and often here. Phoenix, on the other hand, has buried the real Bruno under layers of performance that slowly fall away as the movie progresses, finally showing us his true character by the feature’s conclusion. Both the script and Phoneix do a lot of work to make Bruno more than just a villain, and it pays off immensely.
The Immigrant is a stark presentation of the realities of the time period. In a way it is like Bicycle Thieves – showing how hard things can be for those without means in a world where means mean everything. It is the kind of concept that doesn’t need to be spelled out, but Gray and his actors do a great job anyway. That’s a medium- to heavy-recommend to anyone with the patience for a two-plus hour movie about the immigrant experience in the early 20’s. Everyone else, I’ll see you at Godzilla.