James Gray's The Immigrant is the sort of film that would be more at home on the giant screens of America's lavish movie palaces, circa 1928—The Strand in New York or Grauman's Chinese in L.A., perhaps—than on the art house screens of 2014. It's a period piece that is uncommonly sincere, straightforward, and melodramatic (and not in a satirical way).
Some will find the throwback style jarring, perhaps even heavy-handed, and dismiss it on this point. But that would be a shame, because The Immigrant is more than meets the eye.
Some might compare The Immigrant to The Artist, the 2011 Oscar winner that paid cheerful homage to the silent film era. And Gray's film, set in 1921 New York, is the sort of thing that could have worked as a silent film directed by someone like King Vidor (The Crowd). The plot is fairly simple, the actors exaggerate facial emotion and physical action (running, fighting, cowering) and operatic orchestral music (by composer Chris Spelman) is plentiful. The grainy sepia tones of cinematographer Darius Khondji amplify the film's retro feel.
Yet Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night) has more in mind than mere stylistic homage. Unlike The Artist or Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby—1920s period films primarily about celebrating the aesthetics of cinematic antiquity and postmodernity, respectively—The Immigrant is actually interested in investigating the place and time in which it is set. It's the sort of non-cynical period piece more interested in history itself than in using history to subvert a genre (Unforgiven, Far From Heaven) or to revel in postmodern pastiche (Marie Antoinette, Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby).
Among other things the film explores about 1920s America is the tension between group identity/family loyalty (so strong among the newly arrived immigrant populations) and the individualistic orientation of "self-made" American capitalism. At various times we see how family members are separated or pit against each other, group ties weakened, and "family" redefined in the context of business pursuits (one thinks of the instant-classic Burger Chef scene with Don, Peggy, and Pete in Mad Men's seventh season).
The film also captures the very American mingling of the sacred and profane, the intersecting strains of God and mammon. This tension comes to an explosive head in the 1920s as America's religious impulse, already beleaguered by the onset of modernity, collides messily with the excesses of consumerism and urbanism—and their attendant pleasures (vaudeville, moving pictures, flappers, speakeasies, and so on). Indeed, The Immigrant complicates the traditional Hollywood notion of the "American dream" by putting it in the midst of these various unresolved tensions.
The film follows a Polish Catholic immigrant named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) who arrives on Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) in search of a better life. After Magda is quarantined with tuberculosis and both are threatened with immediate deportation, Ewa finds herself in a vulnerable position. Alone and broke in a foreign land, needing a chunk of money to pay for Magda's release (bribery is a way of life among certain immigration officials, apparently), the beautiful Ewa is taken in by a pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who sees an opportunity. Ewa's American dream quickly becomes a nightmare as she finds herself working for Bruno, alongside his other girls, in the bordellos, burlesque halls, and tawdry taverns of the Lower East Side.