Sunday, November 9, 2008

Little Odessa (1994)

Opening with a meditatively somber, entirely black screen, debut writer-director James Gray's Little Odessa makes a heady first impression. A wordless aural chorus commences, and, along with the intermittently black screen, lingers just long enough to make the viewer estimate when the narrative will proceed. Surprisingly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is recalled. Like Kubrick, Gray is striving to lay the foundation for the events to follow with something of a formal introduction. Slowly a picture finally emerges as the blackness gives way to the imagery captured by the camera. That opening image is a pair of eyes, almost soul-dead, their glassy stoicism and passionless appearance immediately arresting. Gray allows this shot to ferment, a visual strategy that cumulatively creates many visual pieces of information that linger in the mind's eye. The average shot length of Little Odessa is an engrossingly long twelve seconds, proving that Gray's first feature is a film of outstanding meditativeness.

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?


Sam Juliano said...

This review looks extremely good Alexander, and I will be back later today with a full response.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, I look forward to it.

Christopher said...

Must admit, I've never seen this one or even heard of it. You keep inflating my Netflix queue, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, well, it's funny you say that, Christopher, as I was just surfing around my plethora of cable movie channels, and, at 10:00 PM sharp (western standard time) I landed on Sundance (505), where the film was just beginning. Due to that long, black screen chorus serving as something of a prologue, I was able to quickly grab a new blank disc and start flex-recording the film. A couple hours later I wrote this review.

I believe Sundance is showing it again on November 22, Christopher.

Sam Juliano said...

Maybe you like this picture a bit more than I do Alexander, but there's no denying it's strengths, and you do a marvelous job of conveying them in this cleanly-written and unconvoluted piece, which has more than it's share of elegance and eloquence.

My favorite sentence of all?

This one:

"The wintry chill blowing with gusty, untamed ferocity at the dark heart of this picture literally and figuritively wears down the drama's players."

But in a superbly modulated and meticulously-drawn opening aparagraphy, you do a great job at visualizing the opening frames from black that eventually are conjoined by 'aural chorus' and the recollection of the Kubrick film.
Of course the connection to Scorsese in this film is well-known, but I really appreciated the way you said: "If Scorsese is rock no roll, than LITTLE ODESSA is chamber music." (If I may add, then ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is high opera in this continuence) I also quite like the assertion that film is a kind of 'dysfunctional GOOD FELLAS." Nice.

Schell does surely give the most emotional performance and Furlong does convey pathose, even if he is an uneven young actor.

But most of all, you nail the inability here to successfully draw the women, a near-fatale flaw."

Outstanding final paragraph, which among other observations proclaims the film as "haunting." Flaws and all, this is quite true.

This review is top-rank.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the fine input and kind words, Sam. I agree with you in your continuation via Once Upon a Time in America. Roth and Schell were the clear highlights here for me, among the performances.

Yes, the botched, bungled attempts to take a look at the women in the lives of these gun-wielding macho men is a rather grave flaw that could easily have irreparably harmed a film of lesser craftsmanship and general intelligence.

Thank you, again, Sam.

vanessa said...

I didn't like this movie and I think you nailed why. The women are given short shrift. That said Tim Roth and Maximilian Schell are very good I must admit.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Vanessa, the women do not receive a fair shake here, but the film managed to persevere in spite of that problematic flaw. Roth and Schell are, as you note, both excellent.

Anonymous said...

Exquisite review. I never understood why this movie wasn't more loved then it is.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.


One element that I continue pondering over is near the ending. After the last shootout, Roth's character walks up to a bed upon which his mother and brother are sitting. He sits next to them. They welcome him. At this point in the narrative, both characters are dead. It seemed to me, Gray was pointing to Joshua's death with this symbolic scene. There are several different levels at which to look at this and other key moments. Definitely deserving of another look sometime in the future.