Filmed in fabulous sepia-vision, this movie seems to be taking place around the corner from The Godfather: Part II and Hester Street. But it’s a vision of Ellis Island and Manhattan in the early part of the 20th century that concentrates less on ethnic melodrama and more on the ruptures in the human condition that gather around the experience of leaving home to seek refuge in another country. And, like most emigrant tales, it’s about the continuing human misery that meets most of these optimistic flights. Here we visit the constant problems of trust versus survival as Ewa (Marion Cotillard) comes to Ellis Island in the company of her sister, who is suffering from some undesignated lung disorder and put in quarantine. Ewa meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and his brother Emil (Jeremy Renner), a pair of raconteur/pimps who want to use her and ultimately fall under her spell. But the central mystery of the film is Ewa herself.
Movies obsessed with the nature of the social contract are often set on deserted islands or after an apocalypse. That way, every human interaction becomes an unknown proposition. The newcomer will either help you or eat you. James Gray, who loves to make subtle films about the problems of interconnectedness, creates the same web of unknowable outcomes on the populous islands of New York. It’s not magnificent, as far as movies go, but it has Cotillard and a final shot that would make Antonioni envious.