Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Elena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Ilia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Antoni Corone, Patrick Husted, Patrick Holden O'Neill, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg
Written by: James Gray, Ric Menello
Directed by: James Gray
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity and some language
Running Time: 120
Date: 05/16/2014

The Immigrant (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

No Country for Lost Women

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Gray is an accomplished, professional filmmaker. He makes very good films, often quite a bit better than the usual releases. He went to film school, and judging only from what I've seen, he seems drawn to the American films of the 1970s. Yet unlike Quentin Tarantino and others who pay homage to older films, Gray doesn't seem to have much enthusiasm or energy. He seems to want to inhabit a 1970s mentality, making films about the dark side of human nature, without actually being aware of what it all means or where it came from.

Who knows? Perhaps this naïveté is a good thing. Perhaps it avoids a certain wisecracking tone. Either way, The Immigrant is a very, very good film, perhaps better than most of the rest of what you'll see this year. It's just that it's so sober and so resigned that it's hard to get very excited about it. It's a film that deserves respect and admiration, but it's not a film you love.

Joaquin Phoenix stars, in his fourth straight film with Gray, as the slightly shady Bruno Weiss. Bruno runs a New York theater in the 1920s, where the half-naked girls from cheesy variety shows are available to sleep with customers later. Yet the movie belongs to Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a newly arrived immigrant from Poland. In a perfect storm of bad luck, Ewa is denied entrance to the United States because of an altercation on board the ship. But her sister is ill and is detained at Ellis Island. That's when Bruno steps in to "help."

He puts Ewa in his show and promises to help her. She finds the aunt and uncle she was supposed to stay with, but they know about Ewa kick her out again. She stuffs her suffering inside until Bruno's cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), turns up. He's a magician who works on Ellis island, and he immediately sets his sights on Ewa. But Bruno and Orlando hate each other, and Orlando wishes to protect his newest find (Ewa is by far the most beautiful girl he has in his roster).

Gray creates impeccable period detail here, recalling the graceful, masterly images from The Godfather Part II. He gets flawless performances from his actors, especially Cotillard, who is forced to keep so much inside. The writing, by Gray and Ric Menello, is intelligent, and novelistic. The closing shot is so glorious and powerful that it will be studied in film classes for years to come.

It's a terrific film by any measure. But my favorite films are the ones that reveal a little something about their maker, whether they're joyful or demented or passionate or obsessed or interested in something in particular. I can tell that Gray likes the films of the 1970s, and probably The Godfather Part II, but how or why I don't know. Does he think it's cool? Lovely? Sad? No idea. The only other thing I know is that he likes to work with Joaquin Phoenix, and judging from that actor's general reluctance to open up onscreen (with the distinct exception of Spike Jonze's recent Her), I think we may have a pattern.

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