James Gray's The Immigrant is a bit of a mixed bag. Visually inventive and pleasant to look at, but not much of a story holding the isolated performances together in the end. The thriving immigration days of the early 1920's should provide a fascinating setting for an equally interesting story to follow, but instead Gray sets up three characters who remain locked in immoveable emotional places for the majority of the film's running time, which can occasionally be a laborious slog.
Not that the film doesn't have its moments. Gray seems to be going for a kind of old-fashioned melodrama with the very minimal plot that's been set up, and by old-fashioned I mean very old-fashioned, almost in the heightened reality style of a silent film from which the era is set. If that is what he's aiming for I wouldn't say the film doesn't achieve it, I just question whether it's enough to hold anyone's attention for nearly two hours (which at times feels longer). Marion Cotillard plays Ava, a Polish immigrant who comes to America after World War I, seeking a new life with her sister, who's immediately detained at Ellis Island for lung disease, leaving Ava to strike out on her own. After being determined liable to become a public charge because of a sexual assault that happened on the ship (thus branding her a woman of "low morals") Ava is helplessly alone, leaving her vulnerable prey for a shady pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who takes her under his wing with the intention of turning her into one of his prostitutes. Ava's downfall is now complete, but she spends the movie caught between the vice grip of Bruno and the kind attentions of his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who falls for her and sets up the love triangle between the three characters.
And that's about it for the story, as the film spins its wheels veering between the melodramatic Bruno/ Emil confrontations for Ava's attention and Ava's continual depression at her hopeless situation. The performances aren't bad but are rather one note- Cotillard strikes the same worried tone for every scene, with only minimal dialogue with which to express herself. It's a believable character given the times but the slow going pace of this film does it no favors. The environment is well set up, portraying early 1920's New York with convincing authority in the set design and art direction- you can almost smell the market spices being sold on the street corners. But simply not enough happens in this film, which is the biggest problem with it, and yet also might be the director's intention. In silent film melodramas, the action is minimal yet exaggerated, and several scenes in this film seem meant to recall the simple emotional pain of these sorts of stories. But I don't think that style can be replicated in a modern movie which is in fact not a silent film. It needs more of a strong throughline to get from Point A to Point B, otherwise it can be a long, heavy slog in which we don't get enough character or action to sustain a feature length film.
It's still a well acted, well shot and beautifully composed movie- but doesn't do enough with the narrative or atmospheric sense to be seen as a satisfying experience overall. The frustratingly opaque filmmaking techniques leave one at something of a loss as to what Gray was ultimately trying to do here (I can only make assumptions), and the result is a feeling of disappointment, or even pointlessness.