James Gray's 'The Immigrant' Never Quite Reaches the Promised Land

In trying to conjure up the memory of 1920s melodramas, Gray’s latest film sometimes feels buried under its period reconstruction.

The Immigrant Directed by James Gray; written by James Gray and Ric Menello; with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Angela Sarafyan, Joseph Calleja

American director James Gray is not afraid of melodramatic materials, which may be why he is better known and appreciated outside the U.S. than in his native country. Four of the five films he has made in the last 20 years, including “The Immigrant,” were nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and although none of them won, their nomination is proof of the curiosity with which the festival’s organizers regard every new Gray picture (the only one of his movies to win a festival award was his first, “Little Odessa,” made when Gray was 25; it received a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994).

Gray’s four previous films were all set in Brooklyn neighborhoods filled with immigrants and their descendents, usually of Russian origin (he himself comes from a Jewish family that moved to America from Russia). Drawing on the genres of the crime picture and the romantic melodrama, separately or in combination, Gray’s “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” and “Two Lovers” depicted an unstable human reality defined by emotional, social and cultural disconnection. In his newest film, “The Immigrant,” he returns to the historical moment when that disconnection was first 
created, the moment of immigration itself, and in the process allows himself to go deeper into the melodramatic terrain than ever before. That is the source of the movie’s power, but also of its limitations.

Set in the early 1920s, the movie follows the arrival at 
Ellis Island of Polish sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent into quarantine; Ewa, meanwhile, is threatened with deportation back to Poland because of rumors that she behaved immorally during the ocean crossing. Luckily for her, a certain Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, who also appeared in Gray’s three previous films) hangs around Ellis Island, and he bribes a clerk to let Ewa into the country under his protection. His motives, of course, are not really selfless: Bruno uses Ellis Island as a place to hunt for pretty, lost young women just like Ewa. He runs a bar and burlesque theater on the Lower East Side as well as a prostitution business, using the women who appear in the show.

Ewa tries to escape to some relatives in Brooklyn, but they, having heard of her reputation, refuse to take her in and even report her to the authorities. She is sent back to Ellis Island, where – in one of the movie’s loveliest scenes – a show is 
being held for the immigrants. Among the performers is a debonair magician named 
Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who once worked at Bruno’s theater. After Bruno once again saves Ewa from deportation, leaving her no choice but to agree to be a prostitute, the two men become romantic rivals for the vulnerable woman, who is only waiting for her sister to be released so that the two of them can embark on their new life together.

In “The Immigrant,” whose many plot twists include the financial crisis that forces Bruno to relocate his women to Central Park, Gray takes melodrama further than he has before, and the plot twists proliferate and eventually become tiresome. It often feels as though Gray is trying to conjure up the memory of 1920s melodramas, especially those of D. W. Griffith starring Lillian Gish (sometimes alongside her sister, Dorothy Gish; they often played sisters in distress, just like Ewa and Magda).

With her delicate, expressive face and large eyes, which maintain the same gloomy look throughout the film, Marion Cotillard gives a capable lead performance. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she is meant to represent not just her character but an entire tradition of film heroines who become the victims of their own circumstances.

This also weighs the movie down and makes the melodrama seem a bit schematic, an impression that only grows stronger as the plot thickens to the point of alienating the viewer instead of adding to the story’s poignancy. Joaquin Phoenix does a good job as the enigmatic Bruno, who is haunted by demons of his own. Renner’s Orlando, by contrast, lacks depth, and this prevents the drama that unfolds between Ewa and the two men from picking up real momentum.

“The Immigrant” ably captures its historical and geographical setting, and the result is often beautiful; nevertheless, the movie sometimes feels buried under the period reconstruction. James Gray has never yet made an uninteresting movie, but he has also yet to direct one without flaws. He always seems to miss his intended mark, hitting somewhere in its vicinity instead. That this is also true of “The Immigrant” does not in any way mean that his future work will be of less interest.

In his latest picture, Gray tries to capture a formative moment in the shaping of American history and society, to portray that moment as both real and symbolic, and to allude to the ways in which it has been represented in popular culture – all laudable goals. But the result also exposes a certain conceptual and dramatic vagueness often found in Gray’s films, and that is what makes “The Immigrant” a work that is only fair, not excellent.