Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard play a 1920s pimp and one of his staffers in "The Immigrant." Credit: The Weinstein Company
'The Immigrant' Director: James Gray Stars: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix Rating: R 4 (out of 5) Globes
James Gray is a classicist whose fondness for old movies — particularly old melodramas — is apparent in his films’ every frame. He doesn’t just bring old styles to the modern day. (Though all of his films, including “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers,” are rated R.) He behaves as if certain styles have never gone out of practice, because they never should have. His latest, “The Immigrant,” is actually old-fashioned; it’s set in 1921, and it joins Elia Kazan’s “America, America” and “The Godfather Part II” in depicting the rocky experience of those who came into our country in even less pleasant times.
But few had it as bad as Marion Cotillard’s Ewa, a Polish Catholic whose misfortunes start when her sick sister is turned away at Ellis Island. Ewa seems to luck out when she befriends Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a friendly, dapper stranger who says he can ferry her out to Manhattan. Alas, he’s a dangerous pimp who first ropes her into his trade, then allows her to wield some management power, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”-style. She seems to find another savior in Emil (Jeremy Renner), a kindly low-rent magician, but could she just be terminally gullible?
Marion Cotillard sets sail in "The Immigrant." Credit: The Weinstein Company
Melodramas get a bad rap, depicted by detractors as broad and shameless. But the best — and even some of the merely pretty good — deal in nuance of character and especially performance. All three leads gradually reveal surprising details and shifts in personality. Bruno’s terror proves to be at least somewhat bluster; as in other Gray films, part of him is a wounded child playing dress-up. Ewa herself winds up more confident, even ambitious than the sad-eyed victim who enters the picture.
Gray is one of the film’s stars too, in a way, his images weighed down with purpose and fascination at the world it creates and actors he’s cast. The cinematography by Darius Khondji (“Seven”) has the old world mustiness of classic paintings. The sets are evocative of its time and place — Gray is one of the great chroniclers of New York hoods that too rarely get shown on screens — but it’s the faces that haunt the most. Gray loves close-ups that stare at faces one can comb over for hours — the kinds that betray feelings better than words ever could. He understands more than most that the close-up is one of cinema’s strongest and most unique powers, and he’s hired three actors whose mugs are at once iconic and relentlessly human.