James Gray announces his intentions boldly with the very first image of his new film, “The Immigrant,” which opens theatrically on May 16. As you might expect from the title, the first shot of the film is of the Statue of Liberty. But Gray stands the cliché on its head, showing us not the iconic picture of welcome but the back of the statue.
This Lady Liberty is not inviting us to a land of freedom. Later in the film, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a grifter, fixer, pimp and strip-show emcee, will show us the ultimate parody of the American melting pot, a series of half-dressed women representing the nations of the world, culminating in a diaphanously clad Statue of Liberty.
Aptly, that incarnation of the famous statue is executed by Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a bewildered young woman who has only been able to get off of Ellis Island because Bruno has greased the palms of immigration officials. Her only concern is to get enough money to rescue her sister from the island’s infirmary, where she has been quarantined with tuberculosis. In turn, Ewa will become Bruno’s obsession and his downfall.
Gray has made several films that focus on the tension between ethnicity and Americanism as it plays out in this city. “Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers” are variously set in the Russian-Jewish and Jewish-American worlds of contemporary Brooklyn and Queens. Each of them has been intensely personal, but “The Immigrant,” which draws on stories his grandparents told him about life in New York in the ’20s, is both his most personal and most accomplished film to date.
Gray’s vision of the American immigrant experience has always been a bleak one. Whether the threat to the American Dream comes from Old World criminal ties or from New World neuroses, his protagonists are more victims than victors. They are painfully scarred painfully by the process of acculturation, and their identities have been forfeited.
Bruno and his cousin and nemesis Emil (Jeremy Renner) both bombard Ewa with hyper-articulate words of good will and sound advice, but when it comes to action, Bruno is still a pimp and Emil a small-time vaudevillian. Their counsels of good cheer and hard work, interlaced with warnings about the perfidy of the rest of humanity (especially the male half), are worth as little as their promises. The opening shot of the film, then, is a perfect visualization of the reality behind their ostensibly comforting words.
Gray and co-writer Richard Menello take some big risks with their own words. From the “League of Nations” sequence in the strip joint to a similar conceit in which Bruno introduces his squad of whores as “the daughters of the cream of New York society,” name-checking the Astors, Vanderbilts and Fricks, the writing is occasionally as subtle as the police billy clubs that will break Bruno’s jaw later in the film.
Fortunately, the film’s often ham-handed writing melds brilliantly with Gray’s visual style. The film’s palette alternates between the somber grays and muted greens of a New York winter and the sepia tones of the interiors, a series of memory-drenched images that serve as an ironic commentary on the false idealization of the post-Ellis Island experience. Gray uses the widescreen image brilliantly to encapsulate a world in which people are always working at cross-purposes, meanings and intentions, hidden as much by their alien-ness as by their own design. His characters orbit one another warily, separated by window frames, partitions, walls and their own suspicions.
The true highlight of “The Immigrant,” though, is Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno. Like Gray’s other Jewish protagonists — frequently played by Phoenix — Bruno’s identity as a Jew exists mainly in the hostile minds of others. He is deracinated in the extreme, and one feels the desperation with which he proclaims that his troupe of soiled “doves” is his family. Taken in tandem with his amazing turn in last year’s “Her,” his performance as Bruno stakes a claim for Phoenix to be considered the single most gifted actor in American film today. His haunted eyes betray the bewilderment of a not-quite-tough-enough smooth talker whose immense sense of guilt will always overwhelm his desire to succeed.
In short, he is the classic American loser, a perfect icon for a new millennium in which the nation’s role on the world stage is faltering, stumbling and up for grabs.
“The Immigrant,” directed by James Gray, opens Friday, May 16 at the Angelika Film Center (Mercer St. and W. Houston St.) and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue).