James Gray

THE IMMIGRANT directed by James Gray, written by Gray and Richard Menello, with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Dagmara Dominczyk. An Entertainment One release. 120 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (June 6). For venues and times, see Movies.

James Gray has had a rough time getting his movies seen. His new film, The Immigrant, opens in Toronto more than a year after its premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Five years ago, the same thing happened with his last movie, Two Lovers.

This seems insane, because Gray makes intimate dramas with A-list talent. The Immigrant stars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island with her tubercular sister in 1921 and soon finds herself caught between a violent hustler (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix) and a charming magician (Jeremy Renner). It’s the sort of movie that rewards a deep reading, much like all of Gray’s films. He’s just hoping people realize that.

“In some respects we are much more sophisticated than we used to be – certainly, visually we’re incredibly literate,” he says over the phone from L.A.

“But in narrative terms I’m a little bit less optimistic about our advancement. In fact, I find that audiences have pretty much turned away from the moral ambiguities of the late 1960s and the early 1970s – returned to big villains and lovely heroines. I think we’ve taken a step backwards.”

In The Immigrant, he’s trying to turn regression into a strength. It’s a throwback to the silent era, to the immediate intensity of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and Carl Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, morality plays about suffering and sacrifice.

“Certainly that’s what I thought about when I wrote [The Immigrant] for Marion,” Gray says. “But I can’t say that I thought of them much consciously during the making of the film. I tried to be as personal as I could in approaching the material. Having said that, we certainly also thought about a silent film approach in a more general sense, which is to say allowing the faces of the actors to do a lot of the talking for us.”

The result is an intelligent, absorbing drama that has nevertheless proven very difficult to get into theatres. When I ask Gray why, he says there aren’t any superheroes in it.

“It’s a very easy thing to understand once you view it this way,” he says. “My films don’t lose people money in fact, they’ve been quite good about making people money. But the problem is that they make people $5 or $6 million. And if you’re gonna just make people $5 million, $6 million repeatedly, that sounds very nice to you and me but why would [a studio] spend $12 million to make $5 million when they could spend $200 million to make a billion?”

It’s a depressingly convincing argument even the most disappointing mega-movies tend to make back their costs in the end. So where does that leave a filmmaker like Gray?

“Well, commerce wins in the short term,” he says, “but I’m not sure it wins in the long term. I mean, I don’t know if you know what the top-grossing movie in 1974 was. I would bet it was The Towering Inferno it certainly wasn’t Chinatown.

“So you have to forget that stuff and just forge on ahead and hope the film does okay – if people like it, that’s great – and hope that time treats it well. It may not, you know? You don’t know, and you just do the best you can.”

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content