James Gray‘s The Immigrant pulls us back to 1920s New York as we follow the trials and tribulations of a woman trying to start a new life in a new land with her sister. It shows how easily the American Dream can turn out to be a nightmare.
The film is beautifully crafted and confidently made. The mute color tones and soft glow lighting recalls the tint of the films of the era, capturing the spirit and feel of the time. It places you instantly in that decade and keeps you there throughout. The atmosphere is cold and uninviting, with fantastically framed cinematography from Darius Khondji. The music by Christopher Spelman also helps to crystallize the dramatized time capsule reality of the film along with the mise-en-scene and wardrobe.
It’s a very basic story, there isn’t much innovation in the plot but that is completely by design and is rendered moot when the execution is this good. The performances are impeccable. Marion Cotillard goes through immense hardship and shows it every step of the way. She’s capable of showing so much of what she’s going through with her face and eyes, how she goes from a wide-eyed optimist to a woman broken by the false dream. It’s captivating. Joaquin Phoenix continues his rich form, crafting a compelling and conflicted character with very questionable ethics. He takes it upon himself to initially shelter Cotillard but in reality he’s just taking advantage of her, though he does care about her on some level. Jeremy Renner‘s character, a stage magician, is all the more simple, playing a more obviously good guy, but even then there’s a checkered past. Either way Renner is perfectly suited to inject a little light into the film which mostly involves broken promises and drowned hope.
The title may actually refer to any number of characters; they’re strangers in a strange land, betraying their morals to varying degrees to survive in a cold, hard world. Given the name it’s obvious that immigration is a major theme. By showing the old process and drawing the parallels; the false promises, the corruption, Gray draws attention to how terrible things are now, after all theses years, hence the well-worn plot. It asks the question if people can truly ever be universally kind to other people, not cruel and manipulative.
Final Verdict: The simple, human story becomes the framework for fantastic filmmaking and gripping drama. The Immigrant is one of the better films of this year.