Those eyes belong to Joshua Shapira, a stone-hearted Russian Jewish American hit man who moves back into the titular Little Odessa as the film begins. In his first scene he coldly walks up to a man peaceably sitting on a sidewalk bench and shoots him dead. By stripping away any suspense about what kind of man Joshua is, or even the lengths to which he will go in his vocational pursuits, Gray courageously charts a vastly superior course than many a crime thriller-based character study. Rather than allowing for these kinds of questions so routinely attendant to a picture following the daily life of a modern outlaw, Gray inverts one's expectations to a paradoxically conspicuously slight degree. Operating in a vein not entirely dissimilar from Scorsese with the memorable opening of the car trunk, so instrumental in figuratively opening his film, Goodfellas, turns such questions around and asks what these rebarbative actions tell about the people the film follows—and what they do not tell.
If Scorsese's gangster pictures are rock 'n' roll concerts with endless series of prestidigitations, Gray's Little Odessa is chamber music, echoing in its small room with a kind of insularity that is increasingly endearing. Joshua is played with off-putting ambivalence and dizzying virtuosity by Tim Roth, whose pensively plaintive mien most finely represents a melange of anger spurred by buried regret. All of those emotional layerings, though certainly important, are nearly killed by Joshua's apparent need to abnegate without hesitation or even thought. Joshua despises his magazine-selling father, Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell) whose drunkenness, unthinking belt-lashings of Joshua's younger brother, Reuben (Edward Furlong) and adulterous actions—which may or may not have begun with the discovery that the wife and mother, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave) was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor—merit significant scorn.
Gray creates a small-scale Godfather, spun uber-dysfunctional. Much of the film is about the relationship between Joshua and Reuben, and it is in this context that Joshua demonstrates an amicability frequently missing as part of his personality. The concept of two brothers growing up in a rough area, like this film's Little Odessa, with one already a crook and the other admiring the brother without comprehending just how awful he truly is, dates to Hollywood films like the 1939 Lloyd Bacon concoction Invisible Stripes with William Holden, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and so many others. Gray pays at least considerable homage in his own way to these traditions, but mostly his film is too irregular, breaking free from tedious formula, to not be welcomed as fresh.
As a first-time helmer, Gray's instincts may have been to be conservative in his mise-en-scene, which immeasurably enabled him to eschew needless clutter while resting his camera contemplatively on the subjects at hand. Noirishly framed, lit and photographed, by a consistently efficacious cinematographer Tom Richmond, several especially elegantly realized shots reside in the mind of the viewer. Two scenes at nighttime, the first interior and the second exterior, are particularly unshakable. A small group of thugs, the ringleader of whom is telling the others how to depose of a body: in one uninterrupted shot of significant duration, heavenward streams of cigarette smoke piercing the chiaroscuro golden-black back-lighting. Later, when the actual murder is being committed, a man threateningly holding a gun stands over another, the cowed victim praying in Russian, as several other silhouettes in the deep background stand like tittles.
The supporting cast encompassing Roth is all solid from top to bottom. Furlong, though not terribly expressive, conveys just the correct kind of pathos when both relating and listening to his older brother. Schell gives the film's most emotional performance by a wide margin, sustaining a pained loathing of his own eldest progeny for his almost publicly wicked and corrupt ways coupled with an old father's panoply of reflective pangs. Schell's Arkady is a man made of hardshell, disturbed by his own fall into adultery. Emitting an onerously commanding presence, Arkady knows how much of a relic he must seem to be. In one of the film's more rawly touching but dispiriting monologues, Arkady relates, “You know there is a saying. When a child is six years old, he says, 'the father can do everything.' When he is twelve years old he says, 'The father can almost do everything.' When he's sixteen the child says, 'The father is an idiot.' When he's twenty-four he says, 'Maybe the father wasn't such an idiot.' And then, when he's forty, he says, 'If only I could ask my father.' But I'm afraid my sons will never ask themselves that.”
The greatest, most damaging flaw of the picture is, not surprisingly, in the development of the female characters. There are three women who should each be major in the leisurely unfolding narrative but the roles are under-written. Gangster films of all kinds are notoriously male-dominated, with the fairer sex typically held at bay in the shadows. Little Odessa does not differ in this regard. While many could feasibly defend the misaligned focus as being a comment about oblique male egoism—befitting this picture's portrait of a community of generationally-defined male descendants of immigrants from the “old country”—the imbalance cannot be disputed. Moira Kelly plays Alla Shustervich, who is sweet on Joshua. Gray's depiction of love, or lust, or whatever it is these two share, is cliched and woefully under-developed. Redgrave's mother character is inhibited by her tumor, wailing in bed not unlike Harriet Andersson in Bergman's Cries and Whispers. Natalya Andrejchenko as Natasha, the woman Arkady illicitly loves, is a cipher.
Unsentimental but richly woven with achingly deep, pouring humanism for its male personages, Gray's Little Odessa is finally haunting in its denouement. Tragic and unerringly cheerless, the film is stacked with a terrifying centrifugal power. The wintry chill blowing with gusty, untamed ferocity at the dark heart of this picture literally and figuratively wears down the drama's players. What most acridly arises in the last, desperate, lonely moments of this picture is the single, impelling image, dovetailed to that very first shot. Have those eyes changed? Is this in reality the same shot? Are there subtle gradations proving that this is a different time, setting and circumstance or is the viewer projecting them? And if this character, for all of his bluster and intemperateness, has yet to change, will he, can he, ever?