James Gray has cited silent melodramas and Puccini’s Il Trittico as the main influences on this towering period piece, and its raw expressiveness distinguishes it from most 21st-century cinema. In a performance reminiscent of Lillian Gish’s work for D.W. Griffith, Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant left to fend for herself in early-20s New York after she’s separated from her sister at Ellis Island. She gets coerced into prostitution by a childlike Jewish hustler (Joaquin Phoenix at his best), then falls prey to the charms of his magician cousin (Jeremy Renner), who turns out to be an even greater threat to her well-being. All three characters undergo profound transformations; as they evolve, so too does the film, moving from sweeping social drama to a portrait of spiritual epiphany. Beautifully shot (by Darius Khondji), designed, and performed, this may well be Gray’s masterpiece.
R • 1 hour 57 min • 2014