Movies like The Immigrant are a revelation. Movies that can hold an audience’s interest solely by writing and performances reaffirm that unique interest in what draws us to a really good drama. We care about what happens to the characters and we hope, despite everything that seems to be happening, that everything will work out okay for them.
The Immigrant reminded me very much of a movie that would have been during pre-code Hollywood, the days before the Hays Code forced film productions into such sterility and such a strict mode of conduct that issues like sex were treated as though they simply didn’t exist. Pre-code films, like Safe in Hell or Call Her Savage, dealt much more frankly with subjects like prostitution and were, in a weird way, much more feminist than many of the films that followed in decades to come. They almost always featured a strong female lead who was swimming against the tide in a sea of bullshit with all the odds stacked against them.
Marion Cotillard stars as the heroine, Ewa Cybulska, who would have been played by Clara Bow or Jean Harlow had this script been written and filmed in the late 20’s or early 30’s. The period, too, of this film is fitting in a Prohibition-era New York. Ewa is the titular fresh-off-the-boat Polish immigrant who finds herself in a situation where she must betray her own morals and religion to survive and stuck in a cycle of careless bureaucracy to help her sister out of the quarantine zone of Ellis Island.
Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner offer great supporting roles as the men vying for Ewa’s love. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, is astounding as Bruno Weiss, an amoral pimp and exploiter of women–but portrays himself as a caring man. He has not, in the past ten years or so, given a performance that was anything other than awesome. Renner, as the good cousin, is believably conscious of the misery Ewa suffers and never comes across as too cloying or just over-the-top sanctimonious. He’s a believable good guy. A nice guy. No one in this cast lags. Everyone, across the board, is great in their roles.
The direction by James Gray is of important note because it’s never flashy. It never gets in the way of the story. Everything, every little move of the camera, is designed specifically to draw us in and observe, with horror and curiosity, everything that happens. The cinematography is never distracting or pleased with itself. The colors vary between warm and cold but are always pleasing.
Usually, I hate movies that are a circle jerk of self-satisfied misery that a script can dish out on a woman’s journey. I hate misery just for misery’s sake. “How can we make this journey even more hellish for someone?” The Immigrant takes no satisfaction in the trails and tribulations of Ewa. We simply must watch her use her wits and determination to take a situation and manipulate it to benefit her. Will she steal or beg or prostitute herself? Everything she does, she does with a calculated precision, even when she fails. Everything she does, she does to help her sister. She’s a woman of honor and of conviction.
The Immigrant is one of the best movies to come out this year so far. Movies like this harken back to a classical mindset of Hollywood to engage a viewer in a story, first and foremost, and not to be a voyeur in an overblown spectacle of CGI, green screens and 19 edits per second in an action sequence. Movies like this remind us why we want to be told a story in the first place: Because we care about the characters and care about seeing what happens to them, even the bad guys.