If asked to name the greatest relationships between actors and directors, most people would quickly think of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, or John Wayne and John Ford, or Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Most wouldn't get around to Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray, but their fourth film together, The Immigrant, shows that they continue to have one of the most interesting collaborations of their era.
The movie stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa, a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister in 1921, expecting her aunt and uncle to get them into the United States. Things immediately go wrong, however, when her family fail to show up, and health officials pull her sister out of line due to suspicions that she may have lung disease. To make matters worse, they tell her that the address she has for her relatives doesn't really exist, and because of an "incident" on the boat, Ewa is suspected of having loose morals and will be sent back to Poland. In swoops Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), a man who runs a burlesque show and acts as a pimp for the various performers. He pays a guard to get her out, sets her up in a flophouse, and hires her to do sewing, but before long he convinces her to prostitute herself.
As much as going through with these acts disgusts her, Ewa must save money in order to get her sister out of the infirmary on Ellis Island, and so she allows herself to be sold. Complicating matters, Bruno seems to have developed a genuine affection for her, and while she doesn't fully trust him, he is her best path to the money she needs. That is, until his cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who performs at the burlesque house, arrives and becomes infatuated with Ewa. This triggers a dark jealous streak in Bruno -- the duo already have a complicated history -- that leads to tragedy.
Coming at a time when America is steeped in debates about immigration reform, Gray's picture is a stark reminder that policy discussions aren't as important as the day-to-day difficulties for those trying to make their way in an unfamiliar land. It's an implicitly political movie that, among other things, offers a harsh critique regarding the brutal choices people are willing to make in order to get the money needed to partake of the land of the free.
Those deeper themes reveal themselves through a story that feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The film's opening act, which depicts in almost journalistic detail how Ewa ekes out an existence, is captivating. She lives in constant fear of being found out or losing the chance to save her sister, and though Cotillard possesses a tender, delicate beauty, she makes sure Ewa's feral intensity is never far from the surface. Just looking at the character gives you anxiety.
Phoenix is riveting as the mysterious Bruno. He's grandly charismatic on-stage as the host of his burlesque show, delivering double-entendre patter like a cross between Hugh Hefner and a carnival barker. However, in quiet moments, if he isn't obviously scheming, he always seems on the verge of being torn apart inside. He's a character who has been manipulating others for so long that he doesn't know how to act on the genuine emotions he feels for Ewa.
Gray's straightforward script gives the plot a sturdy structure, but it's the film's absolutely gorgeous look that sticks in the memory. The cinematography, by world-class DP Darius Khondji, captures the squalor of New York's Jazz Age tenaments, but does so with a sepia-toned tint and brownish hues that owe a huge debt to Gordon Willis' peerless work on the first two Godfather movies without ever feeling like a rip-off. In addition, Happy Massee's flawless period production design gives The Immigrant a distinct time and place. These two elements come together artfully in a number of early shots in which Phoenix's character is filmed through beveled glass so that his face becomes distorted, symbolizing Ewa's and our own inability to clearly comprehend who his character is.
While The Immigrant may not deliver the emotional gut punch that Two Lovers, Gray and Phoenix's previous collaboration, did, this period piece is still quite good. The story may be familiar, but its timeless aesthetic and universal themes make it resonate even though it transpires nearly a century before the movie was made.