NOTE: This edition of Little Odessa is now out of print and has been replaced with a sub-par barebones pan & scan version. Buyer beware!
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
American films over the last decade, good and bad, have moved towards adopting a whiz-kid MTV pace in editing, dialog, and overall ironic tone. Other than Unforgiven it is a little difficult to think of any recent Hollywood films that don't lean a little more towards Tarantino than Kazan. Thankfully, amidst all of the jump-cuts and pop-culture references, comes Little Odessa, (1994) an extremely quiet, somber film from James Gray, a young director obviously influenced by the darker tone of seventies films like The French Connection and The Godfather Part II.
Little Odessa stars Tim Roth as Joshua, the exiled older son of a Russian family in New York's Brighton Beach, a neighborhood known for its violent and vengeful Russian mob figures. Joshua returns to Brighton to execute a local man, but also to settle with his family, the uniformly excellent Maximillian Schell, Edward Furlong, and an unrecognizable Vanessa Redgrave as the mother, burdened with terminal cancer. Very little transpires in the way of plot development, but the emotional territory covered is great. Roth, playing his character with a thick, complex accent that mixes Brooklyn with Moscow, is obviously torn and frustrated. He feels that he is not as smart as the rest of his family (and he may be right: In the first half-hour he hangs around the old neighborhood day and night, running into all sorts of people, and never fails to warn them "Don't tell anyone I'm here," as if they didn't all already know). His anger is internalized as well. He blames himself along with his abusive father (Schell) for the path he's taken. His awkward attempts to reconcile with Reuben, his worshipful younger brother (Furlong), are heartfelt, but clumsy. He doesn't really know how to communicate and is much more fluid during the brief, brutal glimpses we get of him at work, blowing people away on the street. Joshua is not the chatty hitman of Pulp Fiction or the entirely internalized assassin of The Professional. He wears his emotions on the outside even as he stoically tries to cover them up.
Schell perfectly portrays the anger, disappointment, and frustration of a father trying to do right, but ruining everything. He states his purpose of trying to keep his younger son on the right path, but only knows how to reach for the belt whenever he is challenged. In a shockingly sudden moment Schell, upon realizing that Reuben has reintroduced Joshua to the household, slaps his younger son across the face. Joshua immediately launches a fist to his own father's face, and, in that one instant, the depth of familial animosity is made brutally clear. There are no tedious domestic arguments, just the sadder, more disturbing silence that accompanies this level of discord. When Joshua attempts later to humiliate his father, his actions are sickening, but also sadly reflective of the abuse that he received as a child.
By the time Little Odessa reaches its inevitable conclusion it becomes clear that no easy lessons will be learned.
Even though the film takes a minimalist approach, the material seems rich in subtext and character. Credit this to James Gray's amazingly restrained style as well as the outstanding performances from the entire cast. Rather than scenes filled with cuts Gray gives us long images of faces and eyes. Rather than a huge pop soundtrack he lets the soundtrack go completely silent for minutes at a time, only orchestrating key moments with mournful classical pieces. Rather than photograph scenes in colorful, eye-catching tones, he uses a very painterly eye and just touches light on a few key elements. The scenes in the ailing mother's bedroom in particular are staged and lit like religious paintings, with bodies twisted together in tragic agony and flickering yellowish light that looks as if it could be coming from a candle.
The transfer is terrific, especially when compared with the laserdisc, one of the worst chop-jobs in the bleak history of pan-and-scan. The full widescreen compositions are perfectly recreated here and, given the incredible nature of the cinematography, that is a really good thing.
This is one of the quietest films ever made. That said, the audio is pretty well-balanced, meaning you won't have to ride the volume knob up and down constantly. Some of the dialog is mumbled to the point of incomprehensibility, but that is a function of the Brando-esque acting style Roth and company seem to be aiming for.
From the looks of the Pioneer edition's lazy packaging and menus you'd expect a bare-bones release, but in reality this disc has a nice set of features. There is an informative and honest commentary track from director Gray and star Roth, a montage of film-to-watercolor comparisons with director commentary, and a large collection of on-set photography. During the commentary, which contains more Gray than Roth, the filmmaker proves to be an eloquent, intelligent person, easily able to explain some difficult creative decisions and unafraid to criticize what he perceives as flaws in his own work. He also expresses awe and amazement of his cast. He is genuinely impressed with the emotions they are able to convey and obviously is touched that they would work so hard to help him realize his vision. Given that he was only 25 when he made the film it is remarkable that he was able to create such rich characters for this group of well-known, seasoned actors.
The watercolor sequence is unique as it gives an unusual look at the process of preparation. Gray obviously feels strongly for these previsualizations and it is easy to see how such textured images affected the outcome of the film. The photo gallery is pretty comprehensive and contains a nice mix of candid and publicity shots.
Given how difficult it must have been to market Little Odessa it would be nice to have a trailer or some TV ads, but the presentation here is already far better than can be expected from a film with pretty limited financial prospects for the studio.
Little Odessa is an unusual film that rewards patience and allows the viewer room to interpret. The characters are interesting and complex and, although their lives are grim, they keep the viewer interested throughout. Gray is a talent to watch for the future and, if he continues making lyrical, thoughtful films like this, may become a premiere American filmmaker.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org