Imagine the feeling you get when repeatedly trying to make money and having your hard work barely support your need just to survive (which is probably easy to do if you live in New York City). This plight is magnified tenfold in James Gray's The Immigrant. Following the plight of fresh-off-the-boater, Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant accused of being "a woman of low morals," The Immigrant shows us that the problems of 1921 immigrants aren't really all that different from the lateral struggles of today.
Initially entering Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), Ewa is horrified when the immigration officials quarantine Magda upon diagnosing her with lung cancer. Distraught and confused by the events, things get worse for Ewa after she's plucked from the exit line and told she's being deported for 1) her low morals and 2) not having a "valid" address to stay at. This turn of events leads her into the clutches of a "businessman" (pimp) named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix).
With no other options but to stay with Bruno, Ewa finds herself working as a seamstress in the theater he helps run. Her fear and quietness is irksome to the other girls in the show, who see her not only as a threat to their favor with Bruno, but also as a snob. Bruno quickly tries to change the direction Ewa is taking by offering her a part as "Lady Liberty" in the show. Ewa's sense of demeanment while standing onstage in an ill-fitting costume and at least a pound of makeup is worsened when one of the patrons of the show asks if he can pay Bruno to let his virgin son have sex with Ewa. By this point, the other girls have given Ewa enough absinthe to make her incoherent and amenable.
Once Ewa has surrendered her body for a price, she grows to loathe Bruno even more. Eventually, she escapes and flees to Greenpoint where her aunt and uncle live. Her aunt seems far more pleased to see her than her uncle, and the next morning Ewa finds herself being arrested by immigration officers who have informed her aunt and uncle of her lewd behavior on the ship (it is later revealed that the men on the ship actually forced themselves on Ewa, through no fault of her own).
Sent back to Ellis Island, Ewa is at least happy to be closer to her sister, who has continued to be taken care of and treated for tuberculosis. The night before she's supposed to be sent back, she watches a magic show performance from Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who notices her face in the crowd and takes an immediate shine to her. It is once again, however, Bruno who saves her from deportation. Resigned to being stuck with him until she can pay to get her sister out and move on, Ewa starts turning even more tricks, becoming Bruno's most popular girl. This is both a delight and a burden to Bruno, who loves getting her cut of the money, but also loves her.
Desired by many and interested in no one, Ewa receives a bleak look at what achieving the so-called American dream really entails: Ruthlessness, lies and utter callousness. With these, she arms herself to break free from Bruno and a life of prostitution. So the next time you fear for your livelihood, I recommend watching The Immigrant as a source of solace.