Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In Theaters/On Netflix Instant: THE IMMIGRANT (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Richard Menello. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Yelena Solovey, Angela Sarafyan, Jicky Schnee, Antoni Corone, Maja Wampuszyk, Ilia Volok, Joseph Calleja. (R, 117 mins)

"You are not nothing."

Writer/director James Gray isn't the most prolific of American filmmakers with just five films over his 20-year career (plus co-writing this year's BLOOD TIES), but there's been a growing consensus that he's among the most under-appreciated. His latest film, THE IMMIGRANT, was poised to be his breakthrough that would get him the accolades and respect that's been a long time coming. Early buzz on THE IMMIGRANT prior to its May 2014 release was overwhelmingly positive, and then...nothing. US distributor The Weinstein Company began slowly rolling it out and abruptly pulled the plug. It trickled into some major cities and the people who saw it raved about it.  As recently as last week, it was still playing in a few art houses in the US, but at its widest release, it was only on 150 screens. Whatever momentum that was building for the film has long since stalled and while there's no DVD/Blu-ray street date as of yet, it unexpectedly turned up as a Netflix Instant streaming title this week. While such a move makes THE IMMIGRANT available to more audiences than ever, the treatment given to the film by its distributor borders on criminal, and once again, Gray is relegated to being the next big thing in American cinema, which he apparently always will be.

Gray's 1994 debut LITTLE ODESSA got some good reviews but landed him with the "Tarantino wannabe" tag and the film lumped in with the post-RESERVOIR DOGS crime genre. His follow-up, THE YARDS, the first of four collaborations with star Joaquin Phoenix and the first of two pairing Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, sat on a Miramax shelf for two years before Harvey Weinstein barely released a recut version on just 146 screens in 2000 (Gray's improved director's cut was eventually issued on a special edition DVD).  It was another seven years before Gray resurfaced with the major-studio crime saga WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), which reteamed Phoenix and Wahlberg and harkened back to the gritty cop dramas of Sidney Lumet, a major Gray influence. Despite generally positive reviews, audiences didn't respond. Gray's next film was 2009's TWO LOVERS, a departure with Phoenix as a sad sack recovering from a suicide attempt and torn between manipulative Gwyneth Paltrow and sweet Vinessa Shaw. It was a step away from cops & criminals films and demonstrated Gray's versatility, but any chance TWO LOVERS might've had was torpedoed when Phoenix used its publicity tour to go on talk shows in his madman-bearded, Andy Kaufman-esque meltdown stunt which was later revealed to be a hoax for his faux documentary I'M STILL HERE.  With a history of credible critical acclaim but minimal audience interest, Gray's day in the sun was finally supposed to happen with THE IMMIGRANT. At this point, one can hardly blame the man if he may start to feel that the entire film industry is conspiring against him.

THE IMMIGRANT finds Gray in familiar--and problematic--company: it reunites him with Phoenix, even after the TWO LOVERS debacle, and the film's distribution rights were picked up by The Weinstein Company. Considering how unpleasant Gray's last experience with Miramax-era Harvey Weinstein proved to be, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Weinstein's abandonment of THE IMMIGRANT and its unceremonious dumping on Netflix Instant less than two months after its miniscule theatrical release and before a DVD/Blu-ray street date has even been announced has the distinct stench of score-settling. Even if it isn't, the treatment that's been bestowed upon THE IMMIGRANT is a tragedy.  It's a great film--emotional, heartfelt, beautifully acted, masterfully filmed.  It's the kind of richly-detailed, exquisitely-crafted, prestigious period piece that was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s--the time that a director like Gray really would've flourished--and the kind of majestic Oscar-sweeper that the Weinstein of 10-15 years ago would've been aggressively pushing come awards season. Times have changed, and if something like THE IMMIGRANT gets swept under the rug and banished to the world of Netflix streaming without ever being given much of a shot, then the movie industry is indeed broken beyond repair.

In a career-best performance, Marion Cotillard is Ewa Cybulska, a Polish woman arriving at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sickly sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is quarantined for six months due to tuberculosis, while Ewa, thanks to dubious claims of "immoral" behavior on the trip to America, is immediately processed for deportation back to Europe. Ewa, a nurse in her homeland for a British diplomat's family, speaks perfect English and after a chance process-room encounter with one Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), ends up leaving with him and staying at his Lower East Side apartment. Weiss seems to manage a crew of "doves"--beautiful young immigrant women who perform at a burlesque venue and whom he pimps out to customers backstage after the shows. He has a connection at Ellis Island with processing officer McNally (Antoni Corone), who helps him procure new women. Bruno senses something special with Ewa, who only wants to free her sister from quarantine and get their piece of the American dream.

Nothing happens the way you expect it to with THE IMMIGRANT. You expect Bruno to be a heartless bastard.  You expect Ewa to be a naive innocent. Bruno talks a good game but isn't the smoothest operator, and Ewa has street smarts and a keen sense of self-preservation that you rarely see in immigration dramas of this sort. Ewa begins working as one of Bruno's prostitutes, and rather than gleefully count the money she makes for him, Bruno feels genuine remorse because he loves her. The story gets complicated with the introduction of Bruno's cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka "Orlando the Magician," who arrives back home and is immediately drawn to Ewa. THE IMMIGRANT isn't so much a "dark side of the American dream" misery-fest as much as it's a somewhat cynical triumph of the human spirit saga, one that remains plausible in Ewa's many disappointments but also earns its few feel-good moments legitimately. Lives can change in an instant, and nothing in THE IMMIGRANT is black or white. Even when Bruno is at his worst, Phoenix manages to make you care about him, as when he eavesdrops on Ewa as she's in a confessional and only then understands the horrific life she and her sister have had and how much the promise of America means to them.  Also, Gray doesn't paint Ewa as a crucified martyr. She can be just as cold and cruel as the world around her, and even a shift in Emil/Orlando's behavior plays as completely natural and believable, where many less nuanced directors would've crammed it into place.

James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji
Gray, cinematographer Darius Khondji (THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, SE7EN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) and the production design team have fashioned a visual triumph with THE IMMIGRANT. Shot in muted and sepia-tinged tones, the look of the film recalls the Young Vito Corleone sequences in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and the flashback scenes in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), as well as Milos Forman's RAGTIME (1981) and Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), and though it's not a western, you'll sense the visual influence of Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) as well. Movies just don't look like THE IMMIGRANT anymore:  the attention to detail is such that you feel transported to 1921 Manhattan. Gray's use of CGI is seamless, utterly non-intrusive, and highly effective. He tells the story efficiently and succinctly, always focused and making every moment and every shot count as the film just under two hours and feels complete, where nine out of ten filmmakers would've had this clocking in at a minimum of three hours. His framing of the actors and the action throughout frequently resemble old photographs, and the composition of the final shot is stunning in its presentation.  THE IMMIGRANT would obviously play best on a big screen, but most of us won't have that option. In the end, sure, it's just a movie, but when something this vital, ambitious, powerful, and just flat-out beautiful can't seem to find its place in the world, much like its beleaguered heroine, then there's something very wrong with the state of cinema and film distribution.  This is a film that should be celebrated. Instead, it's being streamed. In short, THE IMMIGRANT is a masterpiece in search of an audience and it's time for James Gray to get his props as one of today's great filmmakers. The "James Gray is the best filmmaker you've never heard of" pieces every time he makes a movie are getting tiresome. Give him a seat at the table. He's earned it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I'm surprised you were so impressed by this film. I found it visually scrumptious and Marion Cotillard was very good in it, but Jeremy Renner is terribly miscast (looking more like Fassbinder than ever) and the film as a whole didn't entirely work for me. Underrated and under-seen? I'd agree, and would recommend it without much reservation. A masterpiece? Not to these eyes. I would say that about Gray's earlier TWO LOVERS, though, which I thought was probably the most underrated film of that year.