James Gray’s relentlessly, intoxicatingly melodramatic period love triangle The Immigrant starts on a passenger ship docking at Ellis Island in 1921 and never gets much further than the teeming tenements and seamy fleshpots of Lower East Side. It’s a claustrophobic story, appropriate to the heated-up emotions at play and the specter of a poisoned, dangerous Old World waiting for the heroine should she fail to find a place in the New. Like Gray’s other New York potboilers like We Own the Night and The Yards, The Immigrant is a stubbornly old-fashioned lovesick tale in which the bonds of passion and family are stretched to their snapping point.
Two sisters are on the ship, desperate for a berth in America after their parents were butchered back in Poland. The situation sours quickly, with tubercular Magda (Angela Sarafyan) pulled out of line for a six-month quarantine. Ewa (a gleaming Marion Cotillard) is pitched into the deportation line, categorized “likely to become a public charge” after their aunt and uncle fail to pick her up as promised. Scowling officials sordidly hint of an episode on the crossing, terming her a “woman of low morals.”
That’s just the kind of woman whom Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) is looking for. A soft-voiced pimp-like operator with a quick fuse, Bruno has all the right people on the island in his pocket. Before Ewa knows what’s happening, she’s spirited across the water to a cramped Lower East Side tenement. Bruno strongly hints that she owes him a very large favor. Ewa nods shyly, thanks him for his generosity, and makes sure to snatch the first sharp blade she sees to keep under her pillow. This won’t be the first time she has had to negotiate for survival with her beauty.
Cotillard plays Ewa as cautious and wounded but thoughtful; trauma is etched in every tentative line but she seems perfectly capable of playing the hapless victim if that will help her get enough money to get Magda off Ellis Island. Her only way to do that is to go along with her new benefactor and debase herself as little as she has to.
Bruno’s business is running a flock of showgirls at a shadowy and violent speakeasy called the Bandit’s Roost. Magic and music acts are snapped out one after the other on a cramped stage in between parades of Bruno’s girls in outfits as skimpy as they are camp. Shot in exquisitely grainy and redolent dark tones by Darius Khondji, it’s a louche playground that feels a little too feveredly cooked-up from Gray’s imagination. But it’s nevertheless the perfect battleground of smoke and mirrors for the moment Bruno’s cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner) shows up and makes an instant play for Ewa, enraging Bruno, who’s kept his feelings under wraps even as he sends out Ewa to sell herself just like the rest of his roster.
In Bruno, we have another of those thin-skinned and destructively prideful characters that Phoenix specializes in. But unlike the firecrackers he created in The Master, here he recedes on screen even when he’s raging. Phoenix is outshined both by the intensity of Cotillard’s serenely calibrated performance, and the bright enthusiasm that Renner brings to his illusionist. Normally a grounded presence, Renner is this grim story’s one true spark, from wowing an immigrant audience at Ellis Island with tricks to his presenting Ewa with a white rose and a simple “God, you’re beautiful.”
But Gray and his co-screenwriter, the late Richard Menello, never craft a proper story for these three battered souls to fully inhabit. In part, that’s because Ewa’s interest is limited to freeing herself and Magda from their respective imprisonments. Drawn as she might be to Orlando’s sparkle and soft-shoe charm or Bruno’s ability to keep the money coming, neither mean a fraction as much to her as Magda. Bruno and Orlando think this is a love story, flashing with betrayal and passion. For Ewa, it’s never anything but a survivor’s tale, cold and simple as a blade.