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"X-Men" Can Wait: See "The Immigrant" First

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 23, 2014 at 3:56PM

"The Immigrant," with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, has drawn some of the most impassioned reviews of the year, but you won't have long to see it.
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Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in James Gray's "The Immigrant"
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in James Gray's "The Immigrant"

James Gray's "The Immigrant" opens in wide release this weekend. I'd love to tell you exactly where by pointing you to the movie's official website, but as you can tell if you click through, the link dead-ends, which seems to be the fate its distributor, Harvey Weinstein, has in mind for the film itself. Gray, who worked with the Weinstein-owned Miramax on 2000's "The Yards," reportedly balked at Weinstein's request to trim the film's length, and though Harvey Scissorhands kept his shears off, "The Immigrant" has been unceremoniously dumped, put into theaters as the critics who championed it at last year's Cannes are busy dealing with this year's festival.

My own take on the film falls closest to the lukewarm reception it got from Dana Stevens and Tim Grierson, but a number my colleagues are exceptionally high on the film, which ought to be enough to have built a robust promotional campaign around. Since that's not going to happen, I've gathered together their most passionate arguments to make the best possible case for the film -- which, if nothing else, does contain an absolute stunner of a setpiece in its Ellis Island pageant. If you've got an opportunity over the long weekend, see "The Immigrant," since chances are it won't be around for long.

Reviews of "The Immigrant"

Scott Tobias, the Dissolve

The immigrant experience has been on Gray's mind since his 1994 debut feature "Little Odessa," a crime picture set in the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, but "The Immigrant" is more in line with sweeping iconography of "America, America," or the early scenes in "The Godfather Part II." The scale seems every bit as large, yet the film’s intimacy is profound: Ewa (Marion Cotillard) may represent the best of America -- integrity, dignity, resilience, devotion -- but hers is a story of particulars, not generalities, and Gray works hard to ensure that nothing conforms to type.

Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment

"The Immigrant" is a simple story, told clearly and directly, building to an emotional climax of dumbfounding, immobilizing power, which hinges on two confessions, one from Ewa, the other from Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). The measure of Cotillard’s performance isn’t how she rises to the occasion of her big scenes -- and yes, she does -- but how alert she is in moments that will never see the light of a highlight reel: the first time she wakes up in the tenement flat provided by Bruno, wielding a shiv picked out of the coal scuttle in self-defense, or painting her lips with a pinprick of blood to give herself the illusion of healthy color. 

Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

It's a little freaky to watch Phoenix go at it, a smooth-talking beguiler who suddenly turns stumblebum. But there's nothing freakish about Cotillard. She gives Ewa an inner life, full of ferocity, vulnerability, cunning. In her peacock feathers and her cheap flapper's jewelry, or in a dark woolen shawl, huddled in the night, this woman is absolutely wondrous, absolutely real.

Melissa Anderson, Artforum

While it is both epic and exalted -- qualities enhanced by cinematographer Darius Khondji's sepia-rich palette -- "The Immigrant" is also the rare period piece that never seems embalmed. The film's vitality emerges from its intimate observations -- like Ewa's first experience eating a banana -- many of which were informed by the memories of the director’s own grandparents, Russian emigres who arrived at Ellis Island in 1923.

Alison WIllmore, BuzzFeed

James Gray is Joaquin Phoenix’s most frequent director, and the two have crafted a character of remarkable complexity in Bruno, who's despicable and tragic, pitiful and awful. He’s a savvy user of the vulnerable and defenseless, but understands more than anyone the promise that’s drawn them and everyone to the country. When he’s parading his girls down by a Central Park underpass, he describes them as the fallen daughters of New York aristocracy, knowing that everyone loves the idea of high-end things being so easily within their grasp.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

In a strange and entrancing way, "The Immigrant" fulfills a distant dream, that of Flaubert's 1852 fantasy of "a book about nothing, a book without external attachments, which would hold together on its own by the internal force of its style." "The Immigrant," for all its meticulous detail and dramatic nuance, turns naturalism inside out. Gray proves -- as he has always proved -- that what matters isn’t frames and cuts, story lines and character traits, but the melodies and harmonies, the moods and tones that arise from them, and that, in turn, seem to deflect, distort, shudder, and shatter them.

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

The picture might be considered an ode to the way movies used to be, not just in terms of look and style but in the way they'd unfold before us, unashamed of teasing out deep, raw feeling, and the actors are game. 

A.O. Scott, New York Times

There are unmistakable gothic elements in Ewa’s tale, which is to some extent a lurid fable of wronged innocence, irrational cruelty and wild coincidence set in a landscape of betrayal, brutality and corruption. But Mr. Gray’s gentle, probing camera works its way under the skin and into the souls of the characters, who turn out to be as changeable and unpredictable as their circumstances.

Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York

"The Immigrant" is a bleak story (even Darius Khondji's strikingly sepia cinematography seems infected by incurable gloom) about humanity's failed promise and the nagging, futile desire to make things right in spite of the world we live in. Yet where Denis favors a languorously elliptical approach, Gray prefers a straight A to B narrative classicism that seems out of vogue, at least as far as the current American cinema is concerned, in its slow-build patience and delicacy.

This article is related to: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, James Gray


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