The Chicago International Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with James Gray’s The Immigrant starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. The movie was picked up by The Weinstein Company and looked initially like prime Oscar bait, but TWC shunted it to their speciality arm, Radius, and then kicked it to spring 2014, taking it out of Oscar consideration for this year. After seeing it, I understand why that move was made, but it’s too bad because it will disadvantage an extraordinary performance by Cotillard.
The Immigrant takes place in 1921 New York, and Gray’s eye for details and sense of environment makes for incredibly rich visuals. We aren’t treated to grand wide shots of the rising New York skyline or sweeping CGI backgrounds. Instead Gray focuses on the details of a Brooklyn stoop, a street in the slums of lower Manhattan, the crowding inside Ellis Island’s entry terminal, the cramped interior of a vaudeville theater. The “biggest” shot we see is one of the Statue of Liberty from across the river. But the narrow scope of Gray’s world fits the tenor of his film perfectly, creating a world that is simultaneously bursting at its seams with people and interesting things to look at, but is also claustrophobic and oppressive. Interior spaces, especially, have a way of bearing down on not only the characters but the viewer as well.
The story is pretty straightforward: Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish nurse who emigrates to America with her younger sister after their parents die in World War I. They have an aunt and uncle already in the country, but things start going awry before they even get to Ellis Island.
We learn right away that Ewa had some trouble on the boat on the trip across the Atlantic—she’s accused of being a woman of “low morals” (read: she was raped and will never see any justice). Because of that, and because her sister, sick with tuberculosis, is quarantined immediately, Ewa is scared and alone, which makes her perfect prey for Bruno (Phoenix), a theater producer whose burlesque show is a front for his brothel. It’s clear to the viewer that Bruno has singled out Ewa and is separating her from the herd from the very beginning—we can infer the web of bribes and lies he uses to isolate Ewa by his winks and nudges to various clerks and cops and the too mannered way he presents himself as her only hope to save her sister from the hospital.
And this is the main problem with The Immigrant—there’s no suspense. Every intention and plot point is clearly telegraphed to the point that the movie gets very boring very fast. It’s gorgeous to look at and Cotillard’s performance is brilliant, but about halfway through the movie I started wishing I was wearing a watch just so I could check the time. Technically there is nothing wrong with The Immigrant, but it never engages or even really touches the audience. Even Phoenix’s bursts of temper can’t liven up the proceedings; coming after The Master his performance feels a bit canned, like he’s falling back on muscle memory rather than pushing through to something genuinely fresh and interesting. It’s just so clear what Bruno’s motivation is, and while the whole bit at the end about redemption and finally doing what’s right is fine, okay, whatever, I can’t help but feel the movie would have been far more interesting if Bruno was just a psychopath who didn’t want to lose his most profitable prostitute for anything.
The closest The Immigrant comes to being actually entertaining is when Jeremy Renner shows up as “Orlando the Magician”, Bruno’s cousin. After a few years of action heroes and disturbed psychos, it’s nice to see Renner play like, just a charming guy, but he also brings a sense of unpredictability with him. It’s a small part, barely twenty minutes tops, and from the moment he starts trying to save Ewa, you know exactly what will happen, but every time he pops up there’s a visceral boost in energy. He has good chemistry with Cotillard and they play well off each other, and the most fun scene in the movie is his first fight with Bruno. The Immigrant kind of feels like a movie no one particularly enjoyed making, except for Jeremy Renner.
Gray’s direction is so methodical and precisely realized and every aspect of the movie from frequent collaborator Christopher Spelman’s score to Darius Khondji’s (Midnight in Paris) cinematography to the costumes designed by Patricia Norris (12 Years a Slave, The Assassination of Jesse James) to Cotillard’s tremendous performance is too well done to say The Immigrant is bad. But despite its rich historical setting it’s boring bordering on cold. Against deeply affecting films like 12 Years a Slave, it would get overlooked for sure. There’s just no pleasure in watching it.