Low Lives: The Immigrant 

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The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray

Homecomings can be arduous in James Gray’s films, and in his latest, set in 1920s New York, home is yet to be created. Ewa (pronounced “Eva,” played by a flinty Marion Cotillard) arrives from Poland on these American shores under a cloud of suspicion as “a woman of low morals” and in a flush of anxiety over her quarantined sister. A showman-pimp, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), takes her in, and before long, she’s paraded on stage in a two-bit gams-of-the-world revue—as Lady Liberty herself.

If there’s a silent-era ring to the title of The Immigrant, at once plain and momentous, that’s borne out by Gray’s melodramatic axis of shame and divided romantic loyalties, foreshadowed by an old-school overture by Chris Spelman. (The discarded earlier title: Low Life, maybe too close to the Luc Sante book that might have supplied some of the film’s period detail.) Struggling for a buck but no little girl lost, Ewa parries overtures from Bruno and his mensch magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner). But neither Gray nor Cotillard leaves it at that: Ewa knows how to leverage, too, as she must, and clear-eyed, she firmly holds her own against Bruno’s manipulations.

Gray—who cowrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator, the late Ric Menello—shades in their characters till by the end the title might apply to either, each at a different phase but still unsettled. Shot by Darius Khondji with a gently worn clarity, the New York that Ewa inhabits feels like the obstructed view of someone stuck on a track (its world opening up most in spaces of reckoning provided by a church and an immigration hall). As a film it looks forward and backward in Gray’s work, all of which is just about summarized with an extraordinary final shot that lingers on.

Opens May 16

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