Joaquin Phoenix Is Not Your Friend (Or, why it sucks to be a woman in The Immigrant)

Joaquin Phoenix is not your friend. He’s a celebrity. But he’s probably an ok guy. This is actually about a character he plays (sorry, Joaquin) in The Immigrant. Spoilers abound!


There’s lots to love about the immigrant. It tells stories of life experiences I know nothing of, it’s beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, and it’s beautiful to look at. Also, Mario Cotillard’s face.

It’s a story about how insanely hard life is for women, particularly poor women and immigrant women, and Lord knows we need more of those. But somehow that is overshadowed by the story of a man. A man who isn’t the best of men but tries hard, who loves a woman and sacrifices to give her the happiness she deserves. To which I would like to call absolute bullshit!

Bruno is actually a terrible man, who profits off the abuse and exploitation of women. He lies, he cheats, he steals, he manipulates, and he kills. Sure, if you put him next to someone awful (since this is the Internet, let’s say Hitler), he seems pretty ok. But just being slightly less awful that the awful people around you does not make you good. It says a lot that the only redeemable thing about Bruno is that he didn’t directly beat and rape Ewa. That’s a really fucking low bar for redemption.

But the worst part is that we’re so used to seeing these stories of men who aren’t as bad as they could be, that he really doesn’t seem that bad. Not great, sure, but nobody’s perfect, right? As viewers, I think we want to find redeeming things in characters. We want to forgive. But, I would argue the stories we read and watch are actually constructed, probably mostly unintentionally, to reinforce the idea that male characters who aren’t 100% evil (who don’t spend the whole time cheating and beating women) can be redeemed. And it’s up to us to forgive them. (It’s worth noting that bad women are rarely seen as completely redeemable, and for far smaller transgressions.) That reflects our culture, and that’s a problem.


Just in case you think I’m being too harsh on poor Bruno, here’s a list of moments that make Bruno seem like not The Worst guy:

  1. Bruno gives Ewa a home, and takes her to his theatre to get a job as a seamstress. That’s nice. Ewa needed a job and she could earn the money she’d need to free her sister for quarantine. Except there really wasn’t ever a job as a seamstress. That is just a ruse to get her in the theatre. When Ewa “agrees” to join the dancing show (after a violent outburst and blackmail moment), we know Bruno cares about her because he a) didn’t rape her (when he was clear he totally could have) and b) doesn’t immediately force her to go topless in the show. And then, when Bruno sends Ewa home, black-out drunk, it’s because he’s sold her to a rich man’s son — but he felt really bad about it, guys, and the son was going to be gentle!
  2. With a gun to his head, Bruno stabs his cousin Emile to death to protect Ewa. She doesn’t know what Emile is capable of! And yet, Bruno can’t tell Ewa she is free to leave, even when he thinks he’s going to die, because in his mind he owns her. And in that moment when he stabs Emile to death, your instinct might be that it was self-defense. BUT HE ALREADY TRIED TO STAB EMILE WITH THAT KNIFE ONCE BEFORE. He killed Emile not out of self-defense or defense of Ewa, but out of jealousy and pride. He thought Emile would steal Ewa away, and since he owned Ewa (and because he’d lost a woman to Emile before), he couldn’t let that happen.
  3. After Bruno murders Emile, one of the other prostitutes tells the police it was Ewa (out of jealousy? fear? self-preservation?). Bruno heroically helps Ewa escape the corrupt police and even takes a beating for her. It’s true, he didn’t have to do that. He could have turned her in. EXCEPT HE WAS THE MURDERER. HE KILLED EMILE. By not turning Ewa into the police for a crime she didn’t commit, Bruno proves that he is not actually the devil. Could someone throw the man a parade, already?!
  4. In the end, Bruno frees Ewa’s sister Magda from Ellis Island by bribing a guard (with Ewa’s uncle’s money that she had to beg for), and he confesses all his sins and “lets” Ewa go. Aww, shucks. At this point, we already know that Bruno has been withholding money from Ewa to keep her from leaving him. But remember when he reported Ewa to the authorities and her uncle because he heard about her “low moral standing” on the boat, lied to the guards or had the guards lie about her New York family being nonexistent, and had her sent to the deportation centre only to handpick her in a fake white-knight act so she’d feel (and, in reality, be) indebted to him for safety?Sure, I guess by bribing the guard to free Magda Bruno did an ok thing. But only if your standard of “ok thing” is not doing the absolute worst thing you could do, and instead doing the sort of decent thing to help someone out of a situation that you 99% caused!

The Immigrant

My beef isn’t that Bruno isn’t a great guy. Lots of stories are about bad people, and I was even grateful that I didn’t have to watch any women being raped and tortured (which feels rare these days). My issue is with a movie that veils a character’s evil with moments of pseudo-compassion, and the only person who gets mad at Bruno is himself. Ewa may have been trying to forgive and let her anger go, but wasn’t she entitled to be just a little bit more pissed off?

If you’re going to tell a story about the shit life a woman has to live to survive, and the shit man who played a significant part in making her life hell, let’s not pretend we’re telling a story of compassion (or, from the trailor below, love). Let’s just tell it like it is.



One thought on “Joaquin Phoenix Is Not Your Friend (Or, why it sucks to be a woman in The Immigrant)

  1. Thank you Lizz for a very relevant response to this issue. This has a big impact on our culture and what women believe is “normal”.

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