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immigrant_ver7THE IMMIGRANT
Written by James Gray and Ric Menello
Directed by James Gray
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner

Ewa Cybulska: I hate you and I hate myself.

In cinema’s earlier days, melodrama was not considered to be negative. Today, many films are looked down upon for their more melodramatic indulgences. It seems that currently, filmmakers can push the boundaries of drama, as long as the film never crosses the thin line between dramatic and melodramatic. Recent films, like LABOR DAY and THE NORMAL HEART could’ve been great films, had they not so violently crossed that line. James Gray’s latest film, THE IMMIGRANT gets so very close to that line, but doesn’t cross it, resulting in a beautiful film, with tones of classical melodramas, but with the depth of a modern masterpiece.

Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulska, who in 1921, sails with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), from Poland to New York City in search of a better life. When the two arrive on Ellis Island, Ewa learns that her sister had tuberculosis and must be quarantined. Ewa herself faces deportation, but Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming brute with connections, helps smuggle her onto a ship heading for Manhattan. Bruno offers Ewa a job at his cabaret; knowing that she needs money to pay a friend of Bruno’s to smuggle her sister off Ellis Island, she reluctantly accepts. For Ewa, the dream of America is not as shiny as she thought, but a chance encounter with Bruno’s cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner) gives her the hope for a better life.


Gray’s films (TWO LOVERS, WE OWN THE NIGHT) are sometimes criticized for being slow with some critics going so far as to call them dull. THE IMMIGRANT does have its slow moments, and the film is probably a good twenty minutes too long, but it is never close to being dull. There is so much deep emotion running throughout Gray’s film that it would be idiotic for anyone to say otherwise. The film is rich, both in its imagery and writing, but what most will be left thinking about after seeing it is the two lead performances. Cotillard and Phoenix are near brilliant in this film. Cotillard had cemented herself as one of today’s greatest actresses since her breakout role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s LA VIE EN ROSE, and her portrayal of Ewa Cybulska is most certainly the closest she has come to a perfect performance since then. In this role, Cotillard says so much without saying anything at all; her often quiet performance allows her to appear both strong and vulnerable consistently. Foiling Cotillard’s understated performance is Phoenix’s Bruno. THE IMMIGRANT is Phoenix’s fourth film with Gray, and it is not hard to understand why Gray continues to cast him. Phoenix commands the film each time he is on screen. At times his performance reaches such great levels of intensity, that it almost seems like he may be overacting. Thankfully, as THE IMMIGRANT is a melodrama, Phoenix’s extremities are perfectly acceptable, and work quite well to develop his character.

For the most part, THE IMMIGRANT is a rather depressing film. It is tough to watch Ewa continually compromising to get the things she wants. While the film does have the aesthetic of an older, silent film, it still manages to remain completely modern, drawing on themes that are also relevant today. Gray slowly guides the film toward what is one of the greatest final images in recent cinema, and it is well worth the remarkable journey to get there.

4.5 sheep

Your turn!

How many sheep would you give The Immigrant?



  1. I think you’re forgetting the inspired performance pulled off by Renner here. I see a handful of people that seem to be taking all 3 performances at face value (aka–where on the melodrama emotion scale did they fall in relation to each other), which makes me feel like they’re missing the whole point of the movie. In terms of Renner in this case, I have to give him mad props for personifying the American dream to an eerie perfection, especially in such a small role; Orlando was never supposed to be a love interest or savior, and thanks to the whim, transient quality, and slight lack of believability Renner infused in the character, he nailed the true philosophy of the story. Given that Phoenix also infused his performance with characteristics of the contrary American reality, the social commentary here should be obvious, but by no means easy to convey within the parameters of a melodrama. Renner and Phoenix had to be flawless to convey this, and they absolutely were. It’s all the more impressive in Renner’s case given his screen time, and who felt effortless on top of it. Overall, these 3 actors are simply genius, and pulled off something reminiscent of the golden age of cinema, not ones of a simple sepia-toned drama. I hope you consider watching it again with maybe a bit of a broader mindset, as this story is one that definitely keeps giving.

    • I did appreciate Renner’s performance, he just didn’t blow me away the same way that Cotillard and Phoenix did. I think your insight about Orlando and the American dream is great and I will certainly pay attention to it next time I see the film. Well you argue that Orlando is not supposed to be a love interest or savior, I would have to disagree. Maybe he wasn’t the kind of love interest we see in most films, but I do feel that Ewa certainly saw how different he was in comparison to Bruno, and felt that if she left with him her bad luck could turn around.

  2. Sorry to delve into such detail, but there is a lot to be enjoyed. Funny enough, I actually experienced Orlando very differently. He was certainly charming and appeared noble in many ways, but I couldn’t believe him as such; I think he gets passed off too easily for who he’s trying to pretend to be. To me, it was clear Orlando had drinking/gambling problems, that he couldn’t take responsibility or hold any accountability for his actions, that he had multiple interpersonal problems beyond Bruno, that he was almost always the “victim,” that he enjoyed instigating fights, and that he (most disturbingly) played up innocence when it was very clear he was being purposeful in hurting someone else. Personally, I don’t think Ewa even trusted Orlando all that well either; Orlando seemed to “love” her most in environments where Bruno would catch them. His motives were probably best seen when he had the chance to be the savior/white knight and he chose to taunt and ridicule Bruno in front of ewa instead, knowing that he loved her (which is a d*** move, sorry). Cotillard and Renner couldn’t be any more brilliant for selling that kind of hollow romantic chemistry IMO; I felt like they both knew that their characters’ love story would end quickly if they actually did run off into the sunset together. The one-way hatred Phoenix portrayed towards a “who, me?” Renner was absolutely electric too; if I had to pick favorites of the 3 it would be them just for those scenes.

    This was just my personal reaction/interpretation. Initially, I think I experienced Orlando as fairly inconsequential, going-through-the-motions as the overall “good” guy who would have made everything better had it not been for the actions of someone else, before I realized how empty and self-serving his character really was. The American dream metaphor quickly becomes something particularly cold and painfully true in this light. I was sadly relieved to see Ewa stick it out with Bruno. What’s most impressive is that the majority of Renner’s script actually involves his character performing or reattributing his emotions and experiences to other people, leaving Orlando kind of aloof and uncertain. The audience has an idea of what he could/should do, but never does Orlando really explain it for himself. I usually find it very hard to care about characters so difficult to pin down. Renner’s performance is certainly not perfect, but I personally enjoyed it very much in this light.

    Thanks for indulging me haha

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