When Ewa (Marion Cotillard: Anchorman 2) emerges from the dank hull of an immigrant ship into the gray New York winter, the land of opportunity is cold and foreboding. Crammed into lines at Ellis Island, Ewa is nervous that her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan: Paranoia), who fell ill on the boat, won’t pass inspection.
Magda is ushered into a quarantine room while Ewa tries to figure out what’s going on. As a woman alone, Ewa too is an immigration risk, sent to a room with other unsuitables awaiting deportation. Afraid, alone and about to lose her American dream, Ewa glimpses possible salvation.
Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) is scouting rejects for talent. A pimp and strip show producer, he promises to help Ewa and her sister. But she will work to earn the money he’ll need. Ewa reluctantly joins Bruno and the women he manages.
Counting the seconds until her indentured servitude is over, Ewa continues to hope to free her sister from Ellis Island isolation.
Bleak, pensive and beautifully shot, The Immigrant is a fascinating look at the dark side of the American dream. Writer/director James Gray (Two Lovers) explores how easy it was for predatory men to force desperate women into sex work. Gray’s Prohibition-era New York is dirty and grey, filled with filthy people and dark corners. This is an unwelcoming world to foreign people, who must learn the rules of this new corrupt society fast or be swallowed by exploiters. Gray pairs his strong script with carefully considered camera work. Frames filled with action and detail enhance the story.
Luminous even with minimal makeup, Cotillard is fantastic as a woman who sells herself piece by piece for hope. Her beauty and solemnity set her apart from the chaotic crowds swirling around her. Her Ewa is never helpless, even when victimized. She accepts what’s happening to her stoically, remaining focused on her goal. Her mix of vulnerability and steel makes her a compelling heroine.
As Ewa’s mercurial pimp, Phoenix swings wildly between terrifying and pathetic. He gives Bruno a wild look, as if he’s clinging to sanity with his fingernails. Indeed, he has deluded himself into believing he’s a savior to the women he uses. Chalking his mood swings up to “artistic temperament,” Bruno becomes obsessed with Ewa, seemingly the only woman repulsed by his behavior.
Troubling, brutal and sadly beautiful, The Immigrant won’t appeal to a mass audience. But it’s part of the truth of the Land of Opportunity.
Great Drama • R • 120 mins.