Director James Gray only brings out a film every few years or so, but his steadfastly independent and uncategorizable movies have always been of a generally high quality even if they didn’t work in one area or another. The same can be said about his new film, The Immigrant: the movie is beautifully shot and the attention to period detail truly envelopes the viewer in the world of early 20th century New York City. It’s a shame then that his overly florid, melodramatic script and inconsistently developed characters sink what could have been a compelling tale of one woman’s attempt to find first freedom and then salvation in a country unknown to her.
The Immigrant is very different in many ways from earlier Gray films like We Own the Night and Two Lovers: it is a period piece as mentioned above, and it’s the first movie from the director to center around a female protagonist. That woman is Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish Catholic immigrant who we find on Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) as the two wait to be allowed into the United States. But Magda has tuberculosis and is whisked off to the island’s hospital for at least six months, while reports of Ewa’s questionable moral behavior on the ship over to the States make her a candidate for deportation right away – until a guardian angel of sorts named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) steps in to grease some palms and escort Ewa to New York City.
Right off the bat our feelings about Ewa are confused: is she a woman of “low morals” or a saintly and innocent beauty who just wants to be reunited with her sister and is seemingly afraid of everything around her? The answer sort of becomes clear when Bruno, who runs a downtown cabaret theater that is basically a front for a brothel – quickly drafts Ewa into service as one of his prostitutes. Ewa goes along, hoping that she’ll earn enough money to help get her sister out of quarantine once she’s recovered. But complicating matters is Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a stage magician whose fondness for and kindness toward Ewa soon tempts her toward breaking away from the unstable Bruno and making a new life for herself.
Did I mention that Orlando is also Bruno’s cousin? One of the strange quirks of The Immigrant is how small it seems despite the expansive setting Gray is working with. Gray’s previous films are all more or less intimate character pieces, but here the coziness of the situation seems off. So does Renner’s work, for that matter: his is the most aggressively modern of the three major performances and there is so little real spark between him and Cotillard that you never feel the urgency of either his professed desire for her or her yearning to run away with him.
That leads to the problem I mentioned earlier: all of these characters come off as vaguely suffering from multiple personality disorder. Cotillard, while at first emotionally vulnerable as always, later turns either oddly passive or coldly calculating, depending on the scene, while Phoenix — a tremendous actor who gives one of his least effective performances here – is all over the map, veering from borderline psychopath to charming salesman to broken-hearted man-boy for no discernible reason. Neither character evolves as much as they simply act out what is required for the scene, with only the movie’s ending – a confrontation between the two in which they both come to a kind of self-realization – providing some glimpse of the more coherent arcs that might have been available.
For the 100 minutes or so before that, however, The Immigrant slowly turns into a slog. Ewa ping-pongs for most of the second act between Bruno (somewhat inexplicably, since he just becomes crueler and crueler) and the substance-free Orlando, with Gray piling on a lot of little incidents – an arrest, a fight in the cabaret, a murder, a chase by the cops through the tunnels underneath Central Park – that just pass by without adding much to the main narrative. Yes, it’s lovely to look at (courtesy of DP deluxe Darius Khondji) and Cotillard’s natural beauty is highlighted by the dusky light in which Gray surrounds her, but the situations and the characters don’t resonate like they should.
Perhaps that’s the problem in a nutshell: while Gray has said that The Immigrant, like all his films, is deeply personal (many of the story’s admittedly rich trove of details came from his grandfather, who came through Ellis Island in 1923), he doesn’t seem to connect all that well to his characters – unlike the more contemporary people we’ve met in his other films. Their motivations and inner lives are maddeningly unclear, which makes for an extreme break with their overstuffed, operatic surroundings and story points. With The Immigrant, Gray attempts to make a half-hearted epic but falls back on some of the devices of his earlier, grittier movies, and both impulses end up fighting each other.
The Immigrant opens on Friday, May 16.