Two sisters have left Poland and joined the huddled masses seeking the freedom that America offers. Their quest will not be an easy one, as one of the sisters; Magda (Angela Sarafyan) has tuberculosis and must be quarantined. The other sister, Ewa (Marillon Cotiallard) is accused of being of low morals—due to an incident that occurred on the ship ride over—and is threatened with deportation. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) enters the picture and says that he can save them both if only Ewa comes with him. She does, and what unfolds is both tragic and transcendent.
Ewa leaves with Bruno and quickly learns that to save her sister, she will have to prostitute herself. Bruno is both a pimp and parades his “talent” to the customers at the local Madame house. Phoenix plays Bruno like a man tortured on the inside, but trying his best to hold his head up with dignity and flare. He fancies himself a showman, but he too is nothing more than a Jewish immigrant, something the Irish police force like to remind him whenever they can. His cousin, Emil/The Amazing Orlando (Jeremy Renner) is a magician who both enchants, and becomes enchanted by, Ewa. At first, Emil offers the possibility of salvation for both Ewa and her sister, but something is off. Ewa quickly learns that all the glistens is not gold, because Emil might not even be capable of saving himself.
Ewa approaches her newfound profession timidly, but once she can see a feasible end to this game, she accepts it. She erects a wall around her heart and refuses to embrace it the way her fellow whores do, growing stronger and more resilient as life continues. She keeps her eye on the prize (her sister’s release) and hardens her heart to maintain sanity.
James Gray’s The Immigrant borrows a title from one of Chaplin’s famous shorts, but both draw from a similar experience. The singularity of both titles emphasizes the immigrant experience. Gray’s script focuses on sin and guilt and it is indeed the walls created by sin that separate and divide these characters. The emotion builds to a crescendo surrounding two confessions: one from Ewa in church and one from Bruno on Ellis Island. These confessions bring down the walls around both of them—and with devastating effect.
The Immigrant is an incredible American movie crafted by a New York director who absorbs European cinema like water. The glow and hue of the gaslight cinematography is most likely due to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather II, and the framing of Ewa is stunning (reminiscent of Ophüls—Lola Montès in particular). Gray photographs her like a painting, often in the direct center of the frame with nothing around her. With Cotillard as your subject, you don’t need anything else.
The final scene of The Immigrant is one of the toughest shots in the gut I’ve taken in a very long time. The movie’s success does not hinge on its ending, but it manages to push the material into rarefied air. I simply was not prepared. Even more so, I was not prepared for the final shot, which is one for the ages. Thanks to the benefit of a window and a mirror next to one another, we are allowed to watch two characters depart us-and in an interesting piece of geography-each other. The shot is held for a long time before it fades to black, allowing us to appreciate it and to wonder: What fate awaits both of these characters?