James Gray is an interesting case for further review, having made several stimulating New York City-based crime films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) that were distinctive, well-acted and memorable, yet trapped in a borrowed sheath of 1970s grit and drained cynicism. These first three films were fueled by emotion, arias where dramatic plausibility was subordinate to heartrending irony. all three, profoundly damaged characters insistently dug their fingers into deep-seated emotional scabs to make the puss run, and then more often than not shot, killed and physically damaged each other.
All three films were well worth seeing, but their genre trappings rerouted what I now see as the rich, delicate passionate core of Gray’s work towards action-movie plot conventions. There was much to admire, but there was also a certain clichéd obviousness to the story developments, and I felt an emotional remove to the untidy histrionics that was likely the opposite of Gray’s intentions. Gray’s operatic stories of criminals and cops felt occasionally stifled by their debt to the past, with The Yards and particularly the often-striking We Own the Night feeling neither here-nor-there; the films were foster children to disinterested parents Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Report to the Commissioner, and quite distant, heavily-accented cousins to 21st century cinema. When his pictures don’t work, Gray’s grave, high intentions can feel pretentious. This time, with The Immigrant, Gray’s talent takes the screen in a way it hasn’t previously.
His last feature, Two Lovers, was a startling departure from his initial cops-and-criminals trifecta, a candid drama of love, responsibility and obsession. For me, it was his first film where his achievement matched his great ambition, and now with the The Immigrant he’s clearly better for having lost the blood, gunshots and crashing metal of his early works while retaining the amplified emotional canvas. In a way not understandable until the final fade, Gray has made another Strange Love Story. Marion Cotillard gives an emotionally substantial, complex performance as Ewa, a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 who is spotted by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a multifarious and spiritually damaged pimp who recruits her as a prostitute. Desperate to help her sister, who is quarantined in the medical ward on Ellis Island, she warily gives in to his manipulations. Gray’s camera picks up everything Cotillard feels, and Phoenix’s skill always has an element of surprise. There’s much hidden in his Bruno, and we long for understanding. Jeremy Renner, as his basically decent if manipulative cousin, largely underplays with nuanced control a character who may be both more and less than what Ewa seeks in him.
Apparently based on family stories passed down, The Immigrant (written by Gray with the late Ric Menello) feels like a consummation of sorts for the filmmaker, who goes beyond himself in an emotionally stirring direction, the picture and the squalid, confined universe it creates enveloping the viewer. Gray’s reconstruction of the teeming grimy and grim Lower East Side of 1921 is intimate, always shot and framed by the richly graphic photography of cinematographer Darius Khondji to create a heightened melancholy. The grandiosity of emotion of his four previous features remains, but the clichés have been stripped away. Here, Gray creates an immediate and sustained level of intimacy between the viewer and the lead character, and every moment of Ewa’s ordinary, tawdry existence feels carefully considered and truthfully untidy.
Gray’s film holds a rare sense of both lived-in history and tarnished romanticism that does on occasion in the second half resort to melodramatic device. Yet the film is magnetic and has an edge, connecting with me on an intimate level, up to its very last, deeply moving image. The film felt like it was playing to me, and me alone. All of Gray’s films hang upon emotional violence, but by lessening the physical violence, it allows Gray (and the audience) to concentrate on the emotional lyricism which is his gift. The Immigrant is a spellbinder, and the filmmaker a distinctive spirit.