“We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the new immigrants.” -Jon Stewart
Between Colonial Williamsburg and 90s nostalgia, humans have a bad habit of white washing history. Between the men dressed in funny outfits and the All That reruns, we often forget the wars and the dysentery.
Because of this, I praise the heavens above when a film like The Immigrant comes out. This is the kind of film that treats history less like an epic poem and more like a rap lyric. In other words, this film is aware that life is a dirty game, and you’ve got to play dirty to win. Now, excuse me while I slap myself in the face for writing those last few sentences.
Set in 1921, The Immigrant touches a nerve for me, as all Jews must grow both sentimental and weary at the sight of Ellis Island. Passage into America meant escape from Cossacks, but it also meant living in squalor while dealing with even more persecution (this went for every ethnic group that came here). The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a young Catholic woman from Poland who is willing to do anything to survive. Or maybe she doesn’t want to do anything to survive, but she is forced to do so.
Not long after arriving at Ellis Island, Ewa is detained and nearly deported. Luckily, she is saved by the benevolent, vaguely Jewish, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). While Bruno takes care of her and gives her a home, he also forces her into a harsh life of prostitution. Phoenix is on a winning streak lately, and he is so good in this that it is almost hard to describe, but I will try anyway. It looks like he learned a few tricks from Philip Seymour Hoffman while working with him in The Master. Like Hoffman did with Lancaster Dodd, Phoenix paints Bruno as stable on the outside, yet unpredictable within. Every act on kindness seems to be cloaking some sort of shady intentions. Making bad intentions reasonable and good intentions questionable is the crossroads at which the perfect amount of moral ambiguity can be created.
The Immigrant is the kind of film that is rarely made anymore, because it is the kind of film that audiences don’t normally want to see. There is no nice message at the end, and no characters ever really act out of kindness towards one another. It is an endless pit of sadness, yet it is not sadness porn, as some might call it. This is not like 12 Years a Slave that you watch once and never want to see again. There is something both compelling and oddly enjoyable about this film. There is no real comic relief to be found, but the immersion into the culture of 1920s New York is seamless. Besides this, the most enjoyable part of the film is the thrilling plot, which heads in whichever direction it feels like taking.
The Immigrant is a film about the American Dream, but not in the way in which everybody ultimately gets what they want. When you think about The Immigrant, think about The Godfather: Part II and Once Upon a Time in America. That might seem like a bit of a reach, but this is the kind of film that aspires to climb to that high of a level. This is more of a film about what America takes away than what it gives. Even if you are one of the lucky few to get a shot at this great opportunity, that doesn’t mean that your life is all that great. Everyone worked and fought so hard to reach New York, and then once they got there, they all wanted to get away. Nothing better reflects this than the very last shot of the film. I dare not spoil it, but it’s one of the most incredible cinematic illusions I have ever seen. Once you see it, you can’t forget it.