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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Top 10: Lord of the Rings Scenes

It’s nearly impossible to pick the best or most memorable scenes The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s hard to even write about them because I love it so much and have way too many feelings. But I’ll try.

1. Sam Carries Frodo 

The test of true friendship, and Sam passes with flying colors. How can you not feel emotional as the Into the West Theme plays as Sam carries Frodo up the mountain? (Howard Shore’s brilliant score “The Black Gate Opens”)

2. The Death of Sauron

The moment we’ve all been waiting for- for nearly 10 hours now- is finally here. The journey ends, the fellowship’s quest fulfilled. This finale is exhilarating and emotional.

3. Gandalf’s Advice to Frodo

Possibly one of the greatest quotes from the trilogy. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Gandalf’s wise and comforting words not only echo back to Frodo when he makes his choice to go and destroy the ring, but also stay in our hearts.

4.. You Shall Not Pass

This scene is simultaneously awesome and heartbreaking. We go from Gandalf being a total badass to the moving aftermath of his death. And that music, have I mentioned how brilliant Howard Shore’s score is?

5. Gollum vs. Smeagol

We get to see Andy Serkis’ brilliant acting and motion capture work in this integral scene into understanding the psychology of Gollum’s character. We see the dueling hero and villain that wrestles within him, but this time it’s Gollum who finally wins.

6. Boromir’s Death  

Yes we know the joke, Sean Bean always dies. But his work in this emotional scene is powerful. It’s sad to see him feel like a failure because he was tempted by the ring. But he’s not a villain, the ring was just too strong for him.

7. There’s Some Good In This World 

Sean Astin really shows some of his finest acting as Sam in this speech. Not only is it a crucial moment for The Two Towers, but it is the crux of the entire story. What are they fighting for anyway? Why is the battle for Middle-Earth so important? There is good in the world, and even in the darkest times there is still hope for it.

8. Pelannor Fields

Hands down, the best battle scene on screen. Everything about this, the CGI, the fight choreography, the music, is incredibly thrilling. And obviously Eowyn’s badass I AM NO MAN moment.

9. Grey Havens

This scene just breaks my heart. There has not been one viewing where I haven’t cried. When he hugs Sam goodbye…I CAN’T.

10. Helm’s Deep Charge

The entire Helm’s Deep battle is fantastic, but the charge at the end wins it all. When all hope is nearly lost and they are at the darkest point, Gandalf returns. A fantastic and visually spectacular moment.

Really, this isn’t even scratching the surface of the best parts of the film. Anyway, I think I’m due for another LOTR marathon. How about you?

What’s Up With That Ending?: High Tension

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*If you can’t tell from the title, spoilers below!*

Two best friends travel to one of their parents’ countryside homes for some relaxing downtime to study for their exams.

Through a not so subtle masturbation scene, we learn that the girl is a lesbian, and attracted to her friend. Okay, that adds an interesting dynamic. The stakes are higher for her to save her when- that very night- a surly trucker comes inside the house to kill the whole family and terrifyingly, for no reason. The violence is brutal and bloody, unsettling but you still can’t look away.

Our main character, Marie survives the killings and goes after the trucker when he kidnaps her friend. She follows him to a gas station in a sequence that leaves the audience on the edge of our seats. Is Marie going to get caught? Is she going to save her friend? There is indeed high tension and anticipation about what’s going to happen.

The tension builds up until a scene in the forest where Marie finally kills the trucker. It is a total FUCK YES! kind of moment, and great to see a female (and queer) character save the day with such courage and tenacity.

And then the twist happens…

Marie returns to Alex, who is hidden in his truck. But we see that Alex is afraid of Marie, wants her to stay away. Then we cut to the police viewing what really happened at the gas station. We learn that Marie was the killer all along. She killed her friend’s family and kidnaps her because she is hopelessly in love with her. Her engaging character suddenly turns into the most absurd cliches. So, in the end, Marie is just a crazy delusional psycho lesbian.

Marie attacks Alex with a concrete chainsaw, but the director keeps cutting back to the trucker killer that we now know isn’t real. Why do you keep cutting back?? We get it. Just stick to your twist and show Marie in her rampaging mania. If this was the pay off all along, let it play out and let us see it.

What’s so disappointing about this ending is that the beginning was done so impeccably. It was a fantastic home invasion thriller with an engaging and fierce lead character. It lived up to it’s title so well that it is unfortunate that the twisted ending was such a let down.

High Tension had huge potential to be a well-regarded horror film. If it even had ended with her killing the man, that would have been satisfying. Or some other kind of twist? Anything other than the “My split personality did it” twist we’ve seen countless times.

Bedevilled: Misogyny & Murder

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It’s rare that a film stays with you, but after seeing Bedevilled, I can’t get it out of my head. Korean filmmakers are one of the greatest storytellers of revenge films, such as Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I Saw the Devil, Mother, The Man From Nowhere, and all of them are incredible. It’s quite amazing that they still continue to keep the genre fresh.

The film opens with a young woman from Seoul, Hae-won, as she has to testify against a crime that she witnessed. But she does not point out the victims, despite knowing who they are. Later, she gets laid off from her job, and decides to visit the island she had been to as a child with her grandfather.

The remoteness of the island is oppressive, they have no technology or modern conveniences, they are truly disconnected from the real world. You need permission to leave the island on the boat that comes every so often. But the island locale is not the most frightening part of the film. In what is often quite difficult to watch, there is a frightening misogynistic culture that the island is built on.

This is when the story shifts to the life of Kim Bok-nam, a childhood friend who remained living on the island. Hae-won finds that her friend is suffering at the hands of incredibly violent abuse, both physically and mentally, by her husband.

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The social makeup of the island markedly changed when a storm took the lives of many of the older men, there seems to be only one older one left. We learn that Kim has been passed around sexually with all the younger men, so she does not know who the father of her daughter is. Her current husband not only horrifically abuses her, but also starts to sexually abuse his nine-year old daughter. The daughter puts on makeup, mimicking the prostitute that visits him in order to get her daddy to ‘love her’ that same way.

What is so terrifying about the abuse is that it is not at all behind closed doors. It is out in the openly, freely and everywhere Kim goes. The men force themselves on the young women anytime they can, groping them, looking up their skirt. This has been going on since they were children, as we see in a flashback.

But this is not just about men vs. women, the older generation of women also proudly perpetuate the misogynistic culture as well. Saying things such as “Girls are happiest with a dick in their mouth”. Not only the misogyny, but the abuse as well! They cheer when Kim’s husband beats her, wanting him to “put that bitch in her place”.

The turning point of the film comes at the death of Kim’s daughter. After being dragged away from trying to escape on the boat to Seoul, everyone stands idly by as Kim’s husband violently beats her and accidentally kills her daughter. We also see that Hae-won stood by as well.

Kim enters a deep state of depression, and after working in the fields and “staring at the sun until it spoke to me” she breaks down and goes on a violent rampage, killing all on the island.

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The ending may leave some with mixed feelings. We want Kim to succeed and fully escape for a better life, but we do not get that. The bond between the two friends ends tragically as they play the flute together one last time, as they had when they were children. It’s more of a bonding over things past, before innocence was shattered, than a reconciliation or act of forgiveness on Kim’s part.

The film ends with Hae-won finally able to point out those who did the crime. She tired to take a step to not be an innocent bystander as she had been on the island, but she will live with always knowing it was too late. Hae-won did not stand up for her friend when she good, she stood idly by like the rest of the islanders. She is just as bad at them for letting the abuse and violence continue.

The tranquility of the absolutely  gorgeous island juxtapositions with the violence and abuse that is perpetuated by everyone in the environment. That is what is truly terrifying about this movie. It’s not the graphic violence. It’s how the abuse is so casual, how apart of everyday life it was.

Jang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled adds to the exceptional Korean revenge film canon. Check it out on Netflix!