The Statue of Liberty swims into view through grey mist. If James Gray were the sort of writer-director who relished symbolism, or I the sort of critic who applauded it, I’d say this moment incarnates what makes The Immigrant such a fascinating picture. Two Polish sisters, smothered in shawls, stand in a serpentine queue at Ellis Island in 1921, in the hopes of gaining entry and meeting their aunt and uncle. But the audience and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) know from the sound of Magda’s (Angela Sarafyan) cough that this is impossible. When authorities quarantine Magda, things get bad; when another bureaucrat denies Ewa for allegedly lying about her relatives’ address and for “loose morals” on the ship, her prospects shrink to zero. Watching her is an intense puglike man in a homburg. Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) introduces himself as a member of the Travelers Aid Society. But the money for bribes has to come from somewhere. After a meal and a bath, Ewa learns he’s a former vaudevillian who runs a burlesque show at a dive called the Bandit’s Roost. He will help her earn the money to spring her sister.
Hands buried in her sleeves for warmth or perhaps to hide their delicateness, Ewa watches Bruno and her co-stars with hooded wariness; Gray didn’t have to show her sleeping with a blade under her pillow to telegraph how violence and timing have scarred her young life (at home soldiers beheaded her parents). He and co-writer Richard Menello haven’t neglected to deepen her character, which is a relief because while Cotillard doesn’t simper she endures so much torment that Bruno’s attraction to the poor wronged creature looks masochistic when it isn’t inexplicable; the success of her performance depends on tolerance for the kind of passivity within which, well, a knife lies in wait. At the show she plays a glum and reluctant Lady Liberty; the other girls, dolled up as geishas and Cleopatras, are not amused. When a garment factory scion whom Bruno tries to impress offers a lot of dough for a woman to deflower his “soft” son, Bruno offers Ewa (he cheerfully wonders if he wouldn’t prefer a male whore). Ewa feels cheapened. A reunion with the aunt and uncle in Brooklyn looks like disaster from the start, as even a brief glance at the uncle’s reticence would have told her. The next morning cops pick her up — he called them. She’s a whore and a disgrace, he yells. He has a reputation to uphold. Back on Ellis Island, where she at least has a chance at bumping into Magda, she watches Orlando the Magician’s show. Played by Jeremy Renner with a pencil mustache and that thumb-sized face open to unexpected and becoming shows of happiness, he’s a schemer alive only when reacting at that moment.
It turns out Bruno and Orlando nurse an ancient rivalry, with a new battlefield and casus belli. If The Immigrant goes wrong, it’s here. What Gray had shaped into a taut précis on New York slum life, without a scintilla of didactics, devolves into a love triangle (a brawl at the Bandit’s Roost that results in the group’s getting tossed out does inspire an amusing routine in a Central Park tunnel in which Bruno sells his girls as heiresses to the Frick, Vanderbilt, et al. fortunes). And there’s one awful moment when I looked for the exit: “My mother used to say, God’s eye is in every sparrow,” Orlando tells Ewa while the strings soar. But Gray doesn’t forget to limn her despair; at confession and a scene with the aunt (who herself looks like she endures untold brutalities at the hands of her spouse) the caesuras that Gray created in the first third pay off. Ewa’s closed-off qualities begin to look like the graces of a survivor.
If in Little Odessa and We Own The Night Gray demonstrated he understood how subcultures cised of ethnic politics complicate family relationships such that affection looks like wine on Sunday, The Immigrant‘s alertness to smells and looks and the degree to which actions muddy preconceptions about people represents a new peak. The late Gordon Willis could not have asked for a more nuanced appreciation than Darius Khondji’s grainy and blue- and gold-hued compositions (a fade to darkness as the sissy boy stretches a tentative hand towards a recoiling Ewa is a blemish). There are scenes so well-staged and resonant that they could serve as drafts for a next set of films about New York in the twenties, scenes with the middle-class men at the speakeasy; the Russian woman, Rosie, who runs the Bandit’s Roost; the tough but surprisingly fair police who work at Ellis Island, even the ones on the take; the casual racism of the others. Twice while watching The Immigrant I wondered what the hell it was about, what the hell I was watching; devoting space here to synopsis is an attempt to clarify what I saw. The currents of loathing, pity, and gratitude flowing between Phoenix and Cotillard were like nothing I’d seen in ages, the kind of ineluctable pulses that mirror the batshit patterns of our own lives. Even noting the melodramatics of the Renner subplot doesn’t account for his warmth and Cotillard’s response to it; he’s like Robert Walker in The Clock, carried aloft on his own sensuousness. He even dances well. Using classical construction like Wallace Stevens did tercets renders these patterns even more mystifying.
Which is why Phoenix becomes the only actor conceivable as Bruno Weiss. Many times since the early nineties he’s scrunched his face and moaned as if passing a kidney stone, thrice for other Gray pictures (Two Lovers boasts his best performance), but in a key moment explaining himself to Eva he hits a new peak of accessibility; he’s the only actor of his generation to use the Method for expressionistic ends which don’t deform him. No wonder they enjoy such a febrile partnership, for Gray, one of the most erudite of American directors (his DVD commentary tracks are marvels), has himself outgrown the miserabilism of his early work. What qualms I had about some of his choices dissolved somewhat with the film’s final composition. He films an ending whose relief can’t dispel anxiety.