REVIEW: The Immigrant [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: May 16th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): James Gray
Writer(s): James Gray & Ric Menello

“The things you do to survive”

While we may not possess that ideal “good” so many want to believe is intrinsic to humanity, sometimes even the worst of us can at the very least find a shred of remorse. “Sorry” will never be enough, though. It never can. But that lapse of amorality unearthing contrition from the darkest of corners could unexpectedly ensure an end to the cycle of pain wrought by previous selfish desire. It won’t erase what came before, nor can it serve as penance for the horror it stops, though. We all do sinful things in varying degrees to propel us forward—things to be ashamed of in the hope they bring us closer to God. Happiness comes at a price for predator and prey and oftentimes finds that its acquisition by one desperate soul directly cements its destruction for another.

This truth is more pronounced when it concerns dreamers and never has there been a place with more than Ellis Island in its heyday of refugees from war torn and poverty-stricken nations abroad. I’m sure most of us sitting at home in a 2014 America don’t actually know what their ancestors had to endure so they could watch TV and sleep soundly at night. Not only did they need to survive their homeland, they had to arrive unscathed on a boat rife with disease and all means of abuse. And it all only earned them a chance at amnesty in a foreign land with a foreign language and little means to be more than a beggar hoping those golden streets would present themselves on a day sooner than later. Some simply exchanged one nightmare for another.

I’m not certain which 80% of The Immigrant is true to his own origins, but writer/director James Gray has stated that’s about how much is based on accounts relayed to him by his grandparents. It’s a tragic story of a woman forced to do whatever’s necessary to reunite with the sister left quarantined on the island due to Tuberculosis while also dealing with the men swooping in to her rescue. By rescue I of course mean exploitation—whether intentionally or not, with love in their hearts or dollars in their eyes. Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) barely has two minutes on American soil before a cough pulls Magda (Angela Sarafyan) out of line and rumor thrusts herself on a path towards deportation. If not for the kindness of a stranger named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), her dream was over.

Expertly performed by Gray’s muse Phoenix and the ever-wonderful Cotillard, we assume exactly what their arrangement is and yet still hold hope things aren’t quite so dire. After all, Bruno does offer her a sewing job and a place to stay on top of the bribe he made to bring her into the city. And the ladies in his building obviously adore him to the point of making Ewa wonder whether his air of security and safety is real. Just as we know what lies beneath his smooth talk and smile, however, so does she. And no matter how many times her brain says stop—giving thanks before searching for the door or grabbing a blade to hide beneath the pillow on which she’s about to rest her head—the prospect of respite is too great to ignore.

He’s her salvation when family (Maja Wampuszyc and Ilia Volok‘s Aunt and Uncle) chooses to cut her loose rather than take on the skewed rumors already cutting through New York about her supposed amorality. Accused of sexual deviance, sexual deviance becomes her only means for employment. So Ewa does what she must inside the brothel masked as theater Bruno runs, admitting her hatred of him with the utmost severity yet unable to walk away. To her the situation is black and white—as it should be regardless—because he’s the only man she’s met. As the rest of the girls explain, however, he’s the nicest pimp they’ve had: genuinely caring for their well being and never putting a hand on them despite flying off the handle now and again. A monster by definition, he’s somehow also a hero.

The Immigrant exists within this gray area from the start as it depicts corruption by law enforcement to simultaneously sell women into the sex trade and save them from a return trip across the ocean. Men like Bruno are greedy and selfish yet also altruistic in a highly skewed definition of the word as long as his help benefits him in the end. Men like his cousin Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) are romantics who think they’re modern and empathetic enough to survive anything thrown their way without caring about how their jealous actions effect those around them. And the victims of their world like Ewa must jeopardize their purity to live—plain and simple. Whereas some cultivate a me-first attitude for strength, however, it’s her selfless love for her innocent sister that prevents her from giving up.

For all the bad things that befall this tragic trio of souls, not one can truly be thought as blameless. Ewa may not have had a choice, Bruno may have had good intentions, and Orlando might have been ignorant to think he could hastily get in between them, but they all made the decision to continue after clarity was reached. Each one sees the other as their last chance for a good life whether it’s by using them for a while or building a future forever. Each one moves too far from the innocence they had in youth when troubles were fewer and age afforded breaks for which adulthood simply has no room. Dreams become excuses and anger replaces frustration until each reaches a turning point where compassion is unavoidable no matter the sacrifice necessary to share it.

All three lead performances are impeccable—something people familiar with Gray’s work know. Renner is charismatic, overly idealistic, and full of misplaced optimism in a world that should have taught him cynicism by this point. Cotillard is forever on guard, conning Bruno as he cons her in a desperate attempt to remain in control before the tiny hope she has is destroyed by the futility life as a penniless beauty brings. And Phoenix is simply brilliant as the man forcing her into the corner providing that emptiness; a crazed, possessive manchild we revile and yet still reserve a sliver of pity. They’re all selfish for their own reasons, cutting a path inside this new world. Eventually they all must learn to accept the pain necessary to give those they love the happiness they no longer deserve.

Copyright: © 2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

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