The Immigrant is a movie that exists largely in the eye of the beholder. A lot of people saw this as a subtle film which completely subverts the idea of the American dream and exposes its ugly realities and the compromises inherent in its achievement. I, on the other hand, thought it was a mixed bag at best, and an underdeveloped, poorly written cliche at worst.
First, some technical praise. The movie is visually stunning. Even though it’s set in the 1920s, a majority of it was filmed on location with as little CGI as possible. The director, James Gray, is from New York and has shot all of his films there; this familiarity may have enabled him to pick locations that didn’t feel like recreations. Some of them, like the diner the main characters frequent, look like places I’ve been in New York. All of the interiors were shot in a way that emphasize their small size, and then color corrected to be as warm as possible. While this feels authentic for the locations (if a little too affected for my taste), it is maybe a bit more powerful than intended, as I felt myself getting warm and even a little claustrophobic.
The AV Club‘s one of the film’s strengths is its nuanced characters: Bruno is not the stereotypical slick pimp character, and Eva is not the gullible innocent. Again, eye of the beholder. I saw mostly underwritten roles that some actors overcame better than others. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, as usual. I actually find him overrated in critically-acclaimed roles, like The Master, and underrated in less recognized ones, like Gladiator. More non-verbally than verbally (mainly due to the script’s failure to present his tendency to awkwardly over-explain as anything other than exposition), he makes Bruno’s insecurity, jealousy, and vulnerability seem like coherent parts of a complex character. Marion Cotillard, however, is less successful. While Eva is a walking contradiction – she’s good because she wants to save her sister, she’s bad because she steals money from someone she’s just met – these feel less like multifaceted character traits and more like she’s a different person from scene to scene. While this may have been intentional, signifying her disassociation in order to do what she has to do, that may be giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to an underdeveloped character. Least successful is poor Jeremy Renner, but it’s not his fault. His character, introduced about halfway through in the movie’s best scene – a magician compares deportees believing in his magic to believing in the American dream – suddenly becomes the catalyst for an unlikely series of cliches. And his dialogue is the worst. He says (and this is only a slight paraphrase), “Bruno’s been acting so crazy lately. I think he may be in love with you.” (In an odd coincidence, I watched The Royal Tenenbaums the following night, and when Eli Cash answers the question, “How’s Richie?” with “I can’t tell. He wrote me a letter. He says he’s in love with you,” my wife and I both laughed out loud. That doesn’t bode well for The Immigrant‘s script being taken seriously.)suggested that
The plot weakens as the movie progresses. By the time Renner’s Emil forms the third leg of the love triangle, only cliches are left. Of course Emil is not just an Ellis Island magician, he’s also Bruno’s cousin. Of course their fight over Eva turns deadly, and of course said death is witnessed by Eva’s rival. And of course it becomes a “terrible secret” that ends with Bruno being beaten and robbed of Eva’s money by the police. But why does all that need to happen? Does there really need to a be a love triangle (which enjoys only about 20 minutes of screen time), a fight, a death, a secret, and a jealous coworker for Eva to learn that Bruno has been keeping money from her?
Even the finale is a mess. In an early scene, Eva is accused of exhibiting “low morals” on the voyage to America and scheduled to be deported until Bruno saves her; the preceding shot of Bruno speaking with an Ellis Island official implies that he has a hand in her threatened deportation. But later, Eva confesses that something did happen on the ship. But later still, Bruno confesses that he orchestrated her deportation in order to force her into a life of prostitution. While sympathetic viewers might have seen this as an admission of shared guilt told Rashomon-like by two unreliable narrators, I saw sloppy screenwriting.
People saw what they want to in The Immigrant. To do so, however, they needed to look past a lot of missteps. The characters aren’t nuanced – they’re underdeveloped. The script doesn’t subvert nearly as many cliches as it embraces. There are snippets of a great movie here, such as Renner’s scene on Ellis Island, but they are overwhelmed by its missteps. In the end, The Immigrant provides no profound comment on the American dream. In the words of Homer Simpson, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.