There are so many things about The Immigrant that would almost ring as appealing towards my own sensibilities: whether it be from the setting or the film’s leading performances, and yet everything feels only as if half of a promise is delivered. This was my own introduction to the work of James Gray as a whole and from there onward, I’ve only run into a series of disappointments as I try my best to warm up to his own aesthetic but I can never find myself drawn into how they tell their stories. I recognize that James Gray’s films have their admirers but aside from a few exceptions I’m on the other side of the fence, for he has always remained a filmmaker that I try to warm up to rather than one whose work captivates me on the spot. Hoping I’d enjoy The Immigrant more after having been taken back by the theatrical experience of The Lost City of Z, what happened instead as a result was reaffirmation in regards to my general indifference towards Gray’s work.
Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish Catholic immigrant who, together with her sister, is looking for a better life after the travesty caused by World War I in Poland. She arrives in New York City and meets up with Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, who takes her in for a vaudevillian lifestyle although she catches the attention of Ellis, a magician played by Jeremy Renner, who may be her only way out of the lifestyle she lives in. It’s clear enough that James Gray has indeed written this film specifically for Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, but it comes from how this story makes itself into a love triangle between Cotillard, Phoenix, and Renner, where I find it to be especially a troubling one as a whole. The most that Gray seems to make of his leading characters alone already feels like a waste of talent because they merely feel just like broad strokes as the film’s setting absorbs everything else and soon it only became even clearer to me why The Immigrant never found itself gelling with my tastes.
It seems as if Gray is a filmmaker who is can allow his stories to adjust to their setting and to his own credit, the production for The Immigrant is one among many things that keeps it from being flat-out terrible, but then the cloying nature of his melodrama comes right in and takes me out in an instant. I’ve always struggled trying to get a firm grasp on the emotional core of James Gray’s films, not because they’re evidently manipulative, but because it almost feels as if setting is the only source of blame that is ever felt and thus, it ends up shrouding his own sense of characterization. And noting how the characters here feel like broad strokes, it was much harder to find myself connecting with the leads in any way because Gray’s work seemed more in favour of flair.
Most of The Immigrant plays as if it merely wanders around its own timeframe rather than create a setting with a feeling of consequence. To put it simply, most of The Immigrant came off as uneventful as it seemed reliant upon its setting to draw out emotions from the actors. Which only adds more to my general problem with how James Gray forms melodrama, they don’t ever feel natural because his characters feel so empty. But with how Gray forms setting in this work, it caught me how upon this watch where it seemed Gray lacked confidence in his viewers regarding the era in which The Immigrant was set, he always feels a constant need to remind oneself about what was harsh about the era, without ever expanding upon the details that form the relationships between his characters. It was even at that point the setting almost didn’t ring as natural in my eyes.
It’s never a terrible film on a count of the film’s leading performances. By no surprise, Cotillard is absolutely wonderful as Ewa just as Joaquin Phoenix is as Bruno. Renner is fantastic too, but this goes to show another thing about Gray’s work that still keeps me watching, it’s because he clearly knows how to direct his actors around the way he writes his characters. As a matter of fact, there’s a part of me that wishes James Gray was better when it came to handling the scenarios for his work because I love his devotion to his actors, but he seems to be an overreaching one too. He looks upon smaller moments and interactions with great intimacy, but inside of a larger realm he seems to wander within the flair and as a result, my own interest in his story fades away.
I was hoping after a disappointing viewing from the first day that I would be taken aback by the spectacle of The Immigrant, but I can’t say that would be possible if the core for Gray’s work seemed so lifeless. He’s clearly got a great visual style, but the way it mixes together with smaller moments only ends up feeling distracting for the experience because he only gets lost within a greater reach and thus my interest fades away from there onward. I just wish that because of how much it clearly has a love for classic Hollywood, whether it be within how a good amount of it almost reminds me of Howard Hawks or Michael Curtiz, it was a whole lot more subtle because as it stands, The Immigrant merely just feels like a bunch of nails containing tragedy, being hammered in all at once – and without any sort of consequence.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via The Weinstein Company.
Directed by James Gray
Screenplay by James Gray, Ric Menello
Produced by James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Release Year: 2013
Running Time: 117 minutes