The Immigrant: The Ambiguous American Dream

Directed by James Gray, The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa (played by Marion Cotillard) and her sister who are traveling from Poland to Ellis Island. Upon their arrival, the sister gets sick and must be left behind on the island to be quarantined. Alone and scared, Ewa is approached by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) a charming but deceitful man who takes her under his wing. He offers her food and shelter and job to earn money for Bruno to get her sister out early. But it all comes with a price. Ewa’s job at his theatre soon turns into a job of prostitution. Ewa also gets tied up with Bruno’s cousin, an equally charming magician.


What is so compelling about The Immigrant is that the characters are all ambiguous, you both like and dislike them. In Gray’s story, pure evil does not exist.

At the center of the film, as the title suggests, is Marion Cotillard as Ewa. Although she is quiet and timid, she is full of perseverance (although desperate) to help her sister. We eventually learn of Ewa’s tortured past, which not only includes seeing her parents beheaded in front of her but also being raped on the boat ride to Ellis Island. Even though she is amidst such terrible circumstances for most of her life, she is not portrayed as a naïve victim. Ewa schemes and steals just as much as anyone- she is also equally under suspicion. Ewa has been far from innocent far longer than anyone can imagine, it is not only Bruno who contributed to her perceived moral downfall. Marion Cottilard brings a layered vulnerability that can only be contributed to her talent.

the immigrant

In any other film, Bruno would be the indisputable villain. After all, he picked up this young girl in a strange new world, ready to claim an American dream for herself, and then turned that dream into a nightmare by making her a prostitute. His disposition is both charming with a hint of wickedness and predatory. But Bruno, in his own flawed way, cares for Ewa. Their relationship is far more than predator vs. prey.

Jeremy Renner’s character, Orlando, is a magician both on the stage and off. He is enchanting and lively, but underneath it all is an undercurrent of a hidden agenda. Ewa is smitten with his talent and way with words. Again, another film would have chosen to set up a more concrete love triangle. But it is not love that is between the three characters. They are all seeking something from each other, whether it be an escape, help, or someone to hear their troubles.


The setting and visuals of this film is gorgeous, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2. Shot in a soft-focus palette of golden hues and browns, the film’s visuals are dark and rich.


There is only one exception to The Immigrant’s gloomy atmosphere, during which Ewa has a quasi-dream-flashback shot in a vivid white bright. Ewa looks back at the life she left with her sister, the life in the Old World, before all this. The dream ends right before a moment of terror, where we see a solider. Possibly the one who killed her parents.


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The film ends with a brilliant final shot of mirrors and windows. Bruno has managed to get Ewa’s sister out early, Ewa tears from him and returns to her sister and they leave on a small boat. Bruno is left behind alone to walk away. This ending split screen shows in perfect harmony Ewa’s old American life walking away, as the boat sails on to a journey to her new American life with her sister.


The film not only questions the ambiguity of morality, but also of the American Dream. Orlando says in his magic act, “Don’t give up the faith, don’t give up the hope. The American Dream is waiting for you!” Ewa’s American dream has been doomed from the start, the cruelty of what happened to her on the boat up to arriving in America only to become something that wracks her with guilt.

The Immigrant presents the American dream as something that is not necessarily an illusion, but it is not a reality either. Just as the film’s characters are not wholly good, and not wholly evil. America was a wonderful and new place for immigrants, but it was also a grim place. The journey didn’t end when the immigrants got off the boat. Although it was good to be able to escape their country (whether it be from oppression or poverty) there was nothing in America waiting to be handed to them. Stepping on America’s soil meant more opportunity, but it wasn’t there right away. It was a long process and sometimes a terrifying and arduous journey to get where they wanted to be.


The Immigrant is a haunting and epic melodrama with psychological complex characters and look at the American dream. It is a shame that this film wasn’t so widely seen. Luckily, it is now available on Netflix!

2 thoughts on “The Immigrant: The Ambiguous American Dream

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