It may have been hard out there for a pimp in “Hustle & Flow,” but it’s even worse for single gals just off the boat in “The Immigrant,” the new drama from director James Gray (“Two Lovers”).
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her consumptive sister arrive at Ellis Island in 1921, when American women had the right to vote but were far from liberated. From the moment we see the unaccompanied Polish sisters, we get a strong sense of foreboding, and it only grow stronger when officials send sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to quarantine and enigmatic “traveler’s aide” Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) comes ostensibly to Ewa’s rescue.
Bruno spirits Ewa away from Ellis Island and slowly but surely eases her into a seedy world of vaudeville and prostitution. It matters not that she had a relatively genteel background in Poland and can speak English: Her options in America are exceedingly limited without benevolent male intervention or a lot of cash. Especially if she wants to get Magda off Ellis Island.
Gray, who co-wrote with the late Ric Menello, skillfully and simultaneously draws both Ewa and the audience into Bruno’s world. Bruno immediately comes off as a suspicious character, but it takes a while before we find out how justified are Ewa’s — and our — concerns about him.
The tension of their relationship relies just as much on the performances by Cotillard and Phoenix, who convincingly portray a wary newcomer and initially opaque opportunist, respectively, in the movie’s early scenes.
Like many a manipulator, Bruno hones in on his mark’s vulnerability. He knows Ewa will do anything to rescue her sister, even if it means subjugating herself. “Your sister’s well-being is more important than your own,” he tells her at one point.
Alas, Bruno’s motives get as muddied as the movie’s cinematography when he starts falling for Ewa. Other women under his “protection” became jealous, causing further hardship for the unlucky immigrant.
As “The Immigrant” unfolds, we learn more horrifying details about Ewa’s boat ride to America and how even the suggestion of lascivious behavior could fatally ruin a woman’s reputation in America circa 1921. There are glimmers of light when Ewa seeks out her aunt, who was supposed to meet her at Ellis Island, and when she meets Bruno’s charismatic cousin (Jeremy Renner). Emil, who goes by the name Orlando the Magician, is as smitten as Bruno, only more interested in loving Ewa than in using her.
For every seeming break in Ewa’s favor, however, there’s a setback. Throughout, she tries to survive soul-crushing circumstances, finding comfort in religion and even coming to care for Bruno, much like those prostitutes in “Hustle & Flow.”
There’s an uplifting ending of sorts, for those who haven’t been too beaten down by the seedy drama to savor it, but “The Immigrant” never sugarcoats the conditions for vulnerable newcomers, and especially women, during that repressive time.
Gray does show some amusing facets of this world, such as prostitutes dressed up as society figures like the Rockefellers and Astors, for instance, but mostly “The Immigrant” is a bleak affair.
This is Phoenix’s fourth collaboration with Gray, who apparently forgave him for going rogue during promotional duties for “Two Lovers” a few years back (all part of Phoenix’s “I’m Still Here” period). While the actor digs into the role of the conflicted pimp, and Cotillard conveys the wariness of the reluctant lady of the night, it’s hard to become passionately invested in either Ewa or Bruno and their joyless tango. The movie suffers whenever Renner’s eyeliner-wearing magician isn’t around; at least there’s a genuine spark in his eyes.
“The Immigrant” is a depressive tour through the Prohibition era made more glossy in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Modern women can both appreciate Ewa’s survival instinct and thank the heavens for how far we’ve come.
And then go watch “Girls.”