Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Immigrant Review

The brilliance of "The Immigrant" is in the way the film's themes sneak up on you and resonate with you long after the film is over. You may have certain expectations when it comes to the film, you may think you know what road it's going to ultimately go down, but instead of turning right, the film goes left. It enters territory most other movies would be too short-sighted and afraid to ever delve into. The power that lies within James Gray's film is its theme of forgiveness. How, through all the pain and misfortune our lead character goes through, she somehow manages to learn and understand how to forgive a man who does nothing but mistreat her. When she arrives in America with the view of the State of Liberty in sight, she has nothing but high hopes for her future there with her sister. But, once her sister is forced to stay on Ellis Island, those hopes are dashed. At least, temporarily. And Ewa must somehow find a way to get her sister off the island in a place that's completely foreign to her.

The one gift Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has is her ability to speak English. After she's threatened with deportation, a seemingly charming man named Bruno (played by Joaquin Phoenix) manages to pay her way out of there. The catch? She has to stay with him and Bruno deceives his initial act of kindness by forcing Ewa to become a prostitute.

What's so refreshing and remarkable about James Gray's fifth film is how he manages to subvert expectations at every turn. When Ewa submits to her first customer, you think we're in for a long night. Ewa is going to be stuck in this awful situation until somebody comes and saves her. That's not the case. Ewa actually manages to escape Bruno's grasp for brief period of time and find some distant relatives who offer her a place to stay. Even when things go wrong there, and she winds up back at Ellis Island with Bruno ready to bail her out, she manages to find a way to turn the tables and take advantage of him.

Ewa is a wonderfully written character as are Bruno, and his cousin, Emil. James Gray gives each of these three characters wonderful layers and they end up being more than what they seem on the surface. Ewa shows unbelievable strength in her refusal to give up hope that she can bail out her sister. She is not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with either Bruno or Emil, despite the latter's countless advances. The only thing she's interested in is to be reunited with her sister so that they can embark on the American Dream together.

Though the practice is nearly extinct now, "The Immigrant" is yet another film that demonstrates just how valuable 35mm film is. The cinematography is this film is impeccable, it perfectly evokes the time period that it's set in (1920s New York) with soft lighting, gorgeous browns and yellows. While it may not be exactly what Gray was going for, it's hard not to think of the Ellis Island scenes in "The Godfather Part II" when watching this movie.

Enough can't be said about the performances here either. Marion Cotillard strikes yet again. You realize in this film just how wonderful she is as expressing herself non-verbally. Gray has said that Carl Th. Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was a huge inspiration for the film and this comes through with the numerous close-ups we get of Cotillard's face. Like I said, Ewa is a beautifully-written character, but Cotillard's performance elevates things even further.

She's anchored by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner (who plays Emil). Phoenix has become an actor whose films simply must be seen on opening weekend, at least for him. He has become a marvel to watch on the screen and he has a moment near the end of the film that nearly ripped my heart out, despite the fact that he plays a fairly nasty character.

Renner, on the other hand, is very charming and light-hearted as the cousin of Bruno who makes his living as a magician. It's rare to see Renner play such a warm character. You saw it a little bit in "American Hustle," though that performance is very much supplanted by Hustle's ensemble cast. He gets a big chance to shine in "The Immigrant" and though he doesn't appear until halfway in the movie, his presence is immediately felt.

It has been a long time since I have seen a film whose opening and closing shots are as striking and memorable as they are here. Gray gets away with these slight stylistic flourishes because the film's style never calls attention to itself. Every shot in this movie is in service of the story, and that is especially true of the final shot, which says so much about the film's characters and its central theme without pointing out the obvious. It's an extraordinary shot in a film that never stops being extraordinary all throughout. The Weinsteins seem fit to bury this film because... who knows why? This is easily my favorite film of the year so far and it's one I hope to revisit many times in the future. This is filmmaking at its absolute best.

Grade: A

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