The Immigrant written and directed by James Gray (Keep Your Head, Kingsgate Films, Worldview Entertainment, R, 120 min)

Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner.

The American Dream

What’s your American Dream? A big house? Five cars? Do you have a plan to get there? For many Millennials, the American Dream is more of an American Expectation. The grand ideals of success represent life as it should be, and every day without achievement feels like failure.

But isn’t the American Dream about hope? Unparalleled success by definition can’t be for everyone. Were it received by all, it would no longer be unparalleled.

What if the American Dream operates as the carrot dangling in front of the rabbit? Hard work can get you places, but that carrot representing the next big thing will always float tantalizingly close.

James Gray’s The Immigrant explores the dark side of the American Dream.


The film begins at Ellis Island in 1921. Two Polish sisters, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) await processing, having traveled the Atlantic to flee their war-ravaged homeland. Failing to harbor her cold, the immigration officers quarantine Magda.

Now a solitary applicant, Ewa faces deportation as the address to her Aunt and Uncle’s residence proves to be false and the ship captain has labeled Ewa as a woman of questionable character.

While in line to be deported, a wealthy benefactor, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) notices Ewa’s pristine English and bribes an officer to release her.

Now on American soil but with no place to go and a deeply rooted desire to find a job in order to work toward earning her sister’s freedom, Ewa follows Bruno and his promises of housing and work.

A Job of Questionable Repute

While his job offer surrounds the seamstress vocation, Ewa clearly comprehends ulterior motives. Bruno has a harem of women dancing burlesque for his show at the nightclub across the street, and many of these women imply that there’s top dollar to be made by sleeping with men after the show.

Even though Bruno prefers to keep Ewa out of this shady business, the draw of the dollar convinces him otherwise. And despite Ewa’s reservations, she reasons her happiness can be sacrificed for the happiness of her sister.

When circumstances press around Ewa and life seems to be unmanageable, the mysterious magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), emerges, professing love and a way toward that beautiful American Dream for Ewa and her sister.

Will his promises come to anything?

Acting and Aesthetics

The quality of The Immigrant arises impressively in James Gray’s set design and his writing. For starters, the 1920s aesthetic is everywhere, yet it doesn’t dominate. It feels dark, gloomy; yet natural and lived-in.

Even more notably, Gray’s story, coupled with impeccable acting, skirts the standard narrative tropes you would expect. A viewer tends to consider such stories in black and white. Bruno, as the dominant male in the narrative, should be a shark, the manifestation of evil. Instead, he fights himself tooth and nail, knowing the prostitution of a woman he cares about is heinous, yet unable to gain the power to stop himself.

Ewa, likewise, should be the innocent and powerless woman, thrown into an untenable situation. Yet, we see a character keenly aware of the warning signs before she enters. She proceeds with agency anyway. There’s still a sense of right and wrong, a sense of a good character and a bad character. But these people feel deeply human.

Ultimately, Ewa approaches the New World with an American Dream—a home to call her own, a husband to take care of her, and beautiful American babies. Instead, she must face the difficult circumstances that befall her. Nevertheless, a dream means hope and she can always cling to that.

The Immigrant is not a film for everyone. It’s a slow-boiled period piece and character study. And yet, it hits home at a deep level. Go watch it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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