The first shot of the film is of Ellis Island, the way station between Old World and New. The camera pulls back to assign a point of view: An unidentified man watches as a boat rolls in. We don’t know it yet, but he’s a predator anticipating his prey. He doesn’t know it yet, but she’ll wreck his life.
This particular immigrant, an unmarried Polish woman named Ewa (Cotillard), arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister, but they’re swiftly separated by her sister’s cough. Bruno (Phoenix), who claims to be from an immigrant aid society, swoops in to help. He is expert at identifying Ewa’s immediate needs and fulfilling them: shelter, respectable employment as a seamstress in the burlesque hall he runs. Ewa needs more – money for her sister’s treatment, to prevent her deportation – and so Bruno, his foot in the door, gently pushes it further open, steering Ewa to become a dancer, then a prostitute. Ewa doesn’t trust him, but she needs him. Bruno doesn’t need her – he already has a stable of girls; he treats them well, and they look at him kindly – but he’s fallen in love with Ewa.
The Immigrant, co-written by Gray and Ric Minello, has a novelistic texture and pacing, bending the audience to its will, to its unique syncopation; the gaslight lamp-like lighting further seduces. As a fallen madonna, Cotillard is devastating (you’d never guess she was speaking Polish by phonetics), while her co-lead, Phoenix, begins as a gargoyle and slowly animates Bruno limb by limb to become a complex figure – the monster becomes a man. Cause and effect are the basic building blocks of all narratives, but Gray has done something exceptional with the domino effect in all his films – only five in 15 years, including Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, and Two Lovers. He hits operatic beats with the softest of snares.
Sometimes one wishes he hit harder. In its early scenes, The Immigrant is subtle to the knife’s edge of torpor, and a crucial third player – an illusionist named Emil (Renner), who also takes an interest in Ewa and shimmers between guises of charlatan and savior – is miscast. (Renner blends in with the wallpaper.) But the film’s final stretch moves like a freight train when all those tiny gradations of feeling and this-leads-to-that plot points arrive at a reckoning. The Immigrant is two hours long, but I stayed even longer in my seat, through the credits, still in thrall to it all. The title is singular, but the scope is not so easily quantifiable.