James Gray's "The Immigrant" begins with a shot of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in mist.
Protagonist Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) arrives in America from Poland on a grim, gray day in 1921, reaching Ellis Island with a sister who is promptly quarantined.
It's an auspicious beginning to a movie that's old-fashioned in the best sense, foreshadowing the perilous journey ahead as the penniless and homeless Ewa is taken under the wing of a charming pimp/showman (Joaquin Phoenix).
The American Dream seems like a distant fantasy, as cloudy as the day that greeted Ewa in New York Harbor, throughout Gray's picture.
Cotillard's face, rife with pain and sadness, says so much about the struggle to maintain pride and a sense of self-worth while facing heaps of indignities.
It's practically a silent film performance, with the character's entire past mostly communicated through the power of suggestion, and it's some of the Oscar winner's most interesting work.
The authentic, moody portrait of a Lower East Side teeming with clutter and energy, filled with vendors, drifters and con artists cramming into tiny tenements and crowded theaters, further gives lie to the notion that the streets in America were instanteously paved with gold.
Gray and director of photography Darius Khondji capture this unfriendly world in a consistent soft focus that gives the film a dreamlike aura, the sense that it encapsulates a waking nightmare.
With its rich, operatic score and pristine production values, the movie recalls Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" and other rich immigrant period pieces. The film cuts through the mythology to offer an uncompromising vision that regards the decision to immigrate, to become a stranger in a strange land, as the brave, difficult one it is.
Directed by James Gray
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Playing at Angelika and Lincoln Center