A grim land of the free

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

ONE of the most popular films writ­ten and di­rected by Charlie Chap­lin in the teens of the 20th cen­tury was The Im­mi­grant (1917), in which the Tramp ar­rives on a ship in New York Har­bor to be­gin a new life in the land of the free. There’s a telling scene in the film when, just as the ship passes the Statue of Lib­erty, of­fi­cials roughly rope off all the im­mi­grants on board as if they were cat­tle. This is one of the first in­stances of bit­ter so­cial com­men­tary that Chap­lin would in­ject into his slap­stick come­dies. Raised in ab­ject poverty in London, he had found un­ex­pected fame and for­tune in Amer­ica but was still will­ing to crit­i­cise some as­pects of his new home (a fact J. Edgar Hoover, it is said, duly noted).

Film­maker James Gray, a de­scen­dant of Rus­sian-Jewish im­mi­grants, who has ex­plored the lives of New York’s eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties in films such as Lit­tle Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, had not seen Chap­lin’s film when he made a movie with the same ti­tle, set four years later, in 1921, and look­ing for all the world like a kind of pre­quel to his ear­lier work.

The refugees Gray de­picts in are flee­ing from a Europe dev­as­tated by World War I. Ewa (Mar­ion Cotil­lard) and her sis­ter, Magda (An­gela Sarafyan), are Pol­ish and speak lit­tle English. As they are herded into the im­mi­gra­tion fa­cil­i­ties at El­lis Is­land they are fear­ful and ap­pre­hen­sive, and why wouldn’t they be? True, they’ve es­caped a grim life in their home­land but they’ve left be­hind ev­ery­thing they know — fam­ily, friends, lan­guage — on the risky as­sump­tion things will get bet­ter for them.

It goes with­out say­ing many refugees pay a high price for their decision to start a new life in a new coun­try, and Ewa and Magda are no ex­cep­tion. Their first prob­lem is that Magda is di­ag­nosed with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and trans­ferred to a quar­an­tine ward. Then Ewa dis­cov­ers the au­thor­i­ties frown on the ar­rival of un­escorted young women, who are sus­pected of be­ing pros­ti­tutes. To add to her dif­fi­cul­ties, she’s told the ad­dress she has for her aunt and un­cle is “not valid”.

Faced with im­me­di­ate de­por­ta­tion, Ewa re­luc­tantly agrees to ac­com­pany a stranger, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who has bribed the of­fi­cials and who of­fers to help her. Bruno’s “help”, the un­for­tu­nate young woman soon dis­cov­ers, is to set her on a path to pros­ti­tu­tion. The only ray of hope for Ewa lies in Or­lando (Jeremy Ren­ner), an il­lu­sion­ist, who is kind to her — but does he also have an ul­te­rior mo­tive?

In­trigu­ingly, Or­lando is pre­sented as one of those who vol­un­teered to en­ter­tain the refugees held on El­lis Is­land. Another (real-life) en­ter­tainer who sim­i­larly gave his ser­vices to the new ar­rivals was En­rico Caruso, and op­er­atic ex­cerpts used by Gray on the sound­track serve to un­der­line this fact.

Pho­tographed in muted, bur­nished colour by the great Dar­ius Khondji and de­signed by Happy Massee, the film — though ob­vi­ously The Im­mi­grant (M) Limited re­lease Night Moves (M) Limited re­lease pro­duced on a rel­a­tively tight bud­get — beau­ti­fully evokes New York’s Lower East Side, the set­ting for films such as The God­fa­ther Part II and Gangs of New York. Bruno runs a vaudeville the­atre that spe­cialises in strip shows as a front for his pros­ti­tu­tion racket, and the irony when Ewa is forced to agree to de­pict “Lady Lib­erty” on stage is pal­pa­ble.

Cotil­lard gives a re­mark­able, lu­mi­nous per­for­mance as the be­lea­guered hero­ine who would almost have seemed at home in one of the silent screen melo­dra­mas be­ing pro­duced at the time in which the film is set. To this un­tu­tored ear, her Pol­ish sounds pretty con­vinc­ing, too. Phoenix gives an un­usu­ally re­strained per­for­mance, which makes Bruno an even more for­mi­da­ble fig­ure. Whether the film can be said to have any par­al­lels with the prob­lems fac­ing to­day’s refugees and im­mi­grants will be up to au­di­ences to de­cide. Gray makes his own feel­ings pretty clear which, given his own back­ground, is only to be ex­pected. LIKE Gray, Kelly Re­ichardt is an Amer­i­can di­rec­tor who re­tains her in­de­pen­dence as far as pos­si­ble and who em­barks only on projects that in­ter­est her. The en­vi­ron­ment hav­ing played a cru­cial role in her ear­lier fea­tures — Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut­off — it’s no sur­prise her fourth fea­ture deals with en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists. What is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing, though, is not that the film takes a strong stand against en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­trem­ists but that her prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters can be de­scribed in those terms.

Re­ichardt’s first three films were very light on nar­ra­tive, con­tent to cre­ate a set­ting and at­mos­phere from which a slim story-line evolved. In this re­gard, too, is dif­fer­ent; it’s her most plot-driven film, and also has a cast of name ac­tors. Josh (Jesse Eisen­berg) and Dena (Dakota Fan­ning) en­joy a re­la­tion­ship that’s dif­fi­cult to pin down. They’re ob­vi­ously very close friends, but they don’t ap­pear to be lovers. Josh lives and works on a farm com­mune in ru­ral Ore­gon, while Dena, who has a wealthy fa­ther, works at steam baths nearby. One evening they at­tend a screen­ing of a doc­u­men­tary urg­ing ac­tion against de­spoil­ers of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, and they de­cide on a plan to blow up a hy­dro­elec­tric dam they see as disturbing the habi­tat of sal­mon and other fauna.

Step by step they move closer to rad­i­cal ac­tion. They ac­quire a small boat (the name of which gives the film its ti­tle) and false iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for them­selves. Then there is a meet­ing with Har­mon (Peter Sars­gaard), a for­mer marine with knowl­edge of ex­plo­sives and sym­pa­thetic to the en­vi­ron­men­tal cause.

To make the ex­plo­sives, th­ese eco-ter­ror­ists have to ac­quire a great deal of fer­tiliser, and there’s a tense scene in which Dena is faced with a re­tailer (James Le Gros) who is a stick­ler for cor­rect pro­ce­dures and de­mands iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The first half of the film ex­plores th­ese sorts of is­sues; Re­ichardt is not so much in­ter­ested in why th­ese young peo­ple think it’s nec­es­sary to re­sort to a vi­o­lent act but how they do it, how dif­fi­cult, or sim­ple, it is to cre­ate a great deal of dam­age. Some­how the film man­ages to come across as be­ing both pro and anti-Green.

This eth­i­cal dilemma is the core of the film, but Re­ichardt never makes it clear ex­actly where she stands on the is­sue. On the one hand it’s pre­sented as be­ing ad­mirable to protest against en­vi­ron­men­tal van­dal­ism, but no so­lu­tion is of­fered — apart from eco-ter­ror­ism, which the film roundly con­demns.

Per­haps be­cause of this dilemma, the sec­ond half of the film un­folds on shaky ground, with events oc­cur­ring that, given the char­ac­ters of the pro­tag­o­nists, seem at best un­likely.

Per­for­mances are solid, with Fan­ning prov­ing once again the for­mer child ac­tress has evolved into a tal­ented adult, and the lo­ca­tion shoot­ing in Amer­ica’s north­west adds to the at­mos­phere. It’s a strange film, though, es­pe­cially com­ing from a di­rec­tor whose pre­vi­ous work seemed much more cer­tain of the points she was try­ing to make.

Night Moves

The Im­mi­grant

Jesse Eisen­berg, Dakota

Fan­ning and Peter Sars­gaard in

Mar­ion Cotil­lard in

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