By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
James Gray has had a bit of an odd career. He constantly works with Grade A casts, and most of his films have either commercial or Oscar-friendly premises, and yet he’s had very little success in the States. France sure loves him, though.
And we all know their taste is impeccable.
With The Immigrant, he once again has a product that would be a no-doubt Oscar contender with the name Spielberg or Scorcese attached. Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant to 1920s New York, who through hard luck, manipulation, and the recursive loop of societal expectations finds herself caught in the world’s oldest profession in order to get the money to get her sick sister out of quarantine at Ellis Island. Joaquin Phoenix is her charismatic, dangerous pimp who may harbor deeper feelings for her, and Jeremy Renner is a dashing magician who could be her salvation.
With that cast, you know you’re in for a well-acted film, and each and every one delivers. Marion Cotillard, with her big expressive eyes, is perfectly cast as a woman who feels (and is) trapped, at the mercy of others, and navigating a dangerous unfamiliar world.
Although she’s not quite ready to step to the Eye Acting Queen.
Renner doesn’t get incredibly long to make an impression, but it’s a strong one, as his white knight is extremely likable up until a climactic scene where we maybe see something darker lurking beneath. It’s Phoenix, though, who impresses the most, taking a role that most would play in moustache-twirling, glowering sadistic villain mode and imbuing it with humanity and a palpable moral complexity. He’s a bad man, but one capable of good, and in some sad way, trying to do it even when his more despicable tendencies win out. It’s one of the first truly great performances of the year.
Gray and DP Darius Khondji shoot the film beautifully, dowsing everything in a sepia tone, magic hour look that magnifies the distinctly lived-in costuming and set design work. Some shots go above and beyond any I can think of in Gray’s filmography, including a spot-lit beatdown in a dark tunnel and a masterfully composed final shot that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
In a less annoying way.
Something about James Gray has always held me at arm’s length. I’ve never seen a truly bad film from him, but neither have I seen a great one. The Immigrant continues this streak. It just should be better than it is with these ingredients. Part of it may be a matter of editing. This film feels longer than it actually is, not because it’s full of inessential scenes so much as the scenes linger a bit too long. The pace is languorous without needing to be, dulling the impact of later plot twists and betrayals.
I appreciate that Gray’s going for realism, but his plotting is pure melodrama (even when it subverts those conventions), and the mix just doesn’t work. I actually liked the plot and characterization of this one very much, though, and if he’d skipped the “realistic” muddled sound design, used a more overt score, and just generally gone for cinematic melodrama, I think he really would have had something.
The Immigrant is a gorgeously shot, produced, and acted period drama that unfortunately doesn’t quite come together as it should.
Take a Drink: every time Joaquin’s temper flares
Take a Drink: whenever an immigrant gets screwed (literally or figuratively)
Take a Drink: every time things get seedier and seedier
Take a Drink: for magic
Do a Shot: for betrayals