Marion Cotillard-Joaquin Phoenix
Photo by Anne Joyce - Courtesy of Wild Bunch

Writer-director James Gray makes consistently intriguing, provocative films like We Own the Night and Two Lovers. The Immigrant is no exception; it  may be flawed, but it’s also strangely compelling. Some of the vignettes in this episodic tale may seem outlandish, but most of them are derived from Gray’s family lore.

Marion Cotillard gives a bravura performance as a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sickly sister. She falls prey to a smooth operator, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s always on the lookout for naïve newcomers. He offers to help and protect her, which he does, even while exploiting her as a prostitute. (She reluctantly agrees to sell her body in order to help her sister.) Therein lies the complex relationship at the core of the movie: he doesn’t see himself as a pimp, harboring grander ideas about his role in rough-and-tumble New York City. Matters are complicated by the arrival of a slick, two-bit entertainer (Jeremy Renner) who has an unfortunate history with Phoenix and an eye for Cotillard.

One of The Immigrant’s primary assets is its texture: a rich fabric of sights and sounds that evoke the look and feel of New York’s underbelly in the early 20th century. From the opening scenes in the Great Hall at Ellis Island to subsequent chapters in boarding houses and makeshift theaters, the movie feels authentic. You can almost smell the pungent aromas.

The melodramatic connection of the three main characters is more difficult to embrace. Gray has a passion for opera that is obvious in all his work; he even manages to incorporate a performance by Enrico Caruso (that actually took place) in this narrative. But the outsized emotions of opera don’t easily translate to the intimacy of film, and that creates some awkward, off-putting moments.

Through it all, Cotillard shines like the diamond-in-the-rough she portrays, even delivering some of her dialogue in Polish. Every nuance of her character’s makeup is conveyed on her expressive face. In his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray, Phoenix delivers a bold performance, although his character (and his motivations) remain hazy at best.

The Immigrant is a remarkable-looking picture, thanks to Gray’s vision and the work of cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Happy Massee, and costume designer Patricia Norris. It may not be a perfect film, but I’m awfully glad I saw it.