If I said about a movie “Well, this wasn’t as terrible as it could have been,” you’d probably think I was saying it was a bad movie. But it really could be literal, as in “the way the movie unfolded could’ve been far more horrific than it actually did play out, and that’s a good thing.”
Which is my way of introducing writer/director James Gray’s The Immigrant, a movie that isn’t as terrible as it could’ve been. Allow me to elucidate.
The story is that Eva (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda, Polish immigrants fleeing—I think it’s Cossacks—after World War I arrive at Ellis Island only to be split up. Magda has tuberculosis, and must stay on the island, while Eva has received some sort of black check on her record during the trip over (“questionable morals”) and so will be sent back so as not to become a public charge, especially since the address she has for her Aunt and Uncle are apparently fake!
My main concern about seeing this film, by the way, was that it would be a big “let ‘em all in” story. As I’ve said, I’m an open borders guy, but as should be obvious by now, imposing current political stories on historical—or even sci-fi/fantasy—narratives ruins them. Since The Immigrant avoids that, and sticks with a convincingly historical storyline, this is one important way that it wasn’t as terrible as it might have been.
Eva is saved by a relatively sane-acting Joaquin Phoenix. I mention the “sane” part because I can’t recall the last movie role he was in where he was sane, and even here, as Bruno, he’s more than a little “off”. But on the 1-to-10 JP-insanity-scale, he’s only at about a three here. Crazy, but crazy in love, and mostly in control.
Bruno saves Eva through some sort of arrangement he has with the guards, and then offers her a place to stay in his apartment and a job sewing across the street. With enough money, he says, she can get her sister out.
Fortunately, since sewing jobs were so profitable in New York City in the ’20s, she gets her sister out lickety-split and they reunite with their lost family and go on to live a happy and prosperous life as hot-dog magnates.
You can imagine how wrong things go for poor Eva, but—I want to stress this again—as bad as they go, they don’t go as badly as they might. That is, the movie never fully descends into “misery porn” as so many of these costume dramas do.
Things get rough. And confusing, especially, when she finds herself enamored of Bruno’s cousin, who seems a lot nicer than Bruno, but may actually be less stable. And that’s always a feat when Joaquin Phoenix is around. (The cousin is played well by Jeremy Renner, who’s taken some time off from pretending to kill people with guns/agitating against real-life guns, to do a more serious dramatic role)
The movie very cleverly avoids giving us a neat narrative. There are villains, but it’s not always clear who they are. The System itself doesn’t come off well, which is fair. They seldom should. There’s also a sort of surprising Act 3 resolution which draws on a perfectly appropriate spiritual resolution, that’s nonetheless not the sort of thing you expect to see much in movies today.
The Boy and I didn’t think it was great, but it was surprisingly acceptable. And we don’t say that lightly.