"The Immigrant," James Gray's story of a Polish woman who discovers that America in 1921 is not the promised land she expected, opens with an image of the Statue of Liberty enshrouded in a blue-gray haze. As a visual metaphor -- a beacon of hope, half visible, unreachable -- it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. And like the rest of this intense, often brutal film, it works.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulski, a former nanny in Poland. Arriving at Ellis Island, she is branded a woman of "low morals" (we don't yet know why) and subject to immediate deportation. Desperate to stay in America with her ailing sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), Ewa catches the eye of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Miraculously, this well-spoken gentleman opens a back door and ushers Ewa into New York City.
But who is this man, and what does he want? Ewa may be this movie's heroine (Cotillard's expressive eyes pull us right into her), but Bruno is the reason we keep watching. Thanks partly to Phoenix's tightly controlled performance, Bruno reveals himself to be an abusive pimp and a vicious survivor, yet a man still capable of love. That becomes clear when a freewheeling magician, Orlando (an appealing Jeremy Renner), threatens to pry Ewa from Bruno's grasp.
Co-written by Gray (with the late Richard Menello) and fleshed out from fragments of Gray's own Polish grandparents' lives, "The Immigrant" offers precious few moments of joy or even relaxation. It comes on strong and never stops. But it's also the rare original film that feels as rich and complex as a novel. Its portrait of early 20th-century New York, a melting pot on a relentless simmer, feels wrenchingly real.
PLOT In 1921, a Polish woman in America begins a new life she may regret.
RATING R (violence, sexuality)
CAST Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
BOTTOM LINE James Gray's brutal drama can be overly intense, but it's also the rare original film that feels as richly drawn as a novel.