A highly charged, coolly assured directorial bow graced by riveting work from a trio of accomplished leads, “Little Odessa” immediately etches a firm place on the map for 25-year-old New York newcomer James Gray. With critical support and savvy marketing, this somberly explosive family tragedy, set against the brooding backdrop of the Mafia-plagued Russian-Jewish emigre community in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, has the dramatic potency to stake a significant claim on upscale urban markets. Fine Line pickup world-preemed at the Venice Film Festival, and is slated for U.S. release next spring.
Unlike “Reservoir Dogs,””Laws of Gravity” and any number of Scorsese-spun U.S. indie brethren that stalk parallel crime beats, Gray’s mob opera eschews a canvas of aggressively drawn violence and hip dialogue constructions to focus more intently on character. The impact of its devastating denouement is consequently of a quieter, though no less visceral nature.
Contracted to erase an Iranian jeweler, Brooklyn-bred hit-man Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) returns reluctantly to the childhood neighborhood he abandoned years earlier to avoid Mafia score-settling from a previous job.
Despite having no contact with his family, word of his arrival reaches his kid brother Reuben (Edward Furlong), who eagerly tracks him down.
On learning that his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is slowly dying from a brain tumor, Joshua goes to see her, provoking a violent reaction from his rancorous father (Maximilian Schell).
But he uses knowledge of his father’s long-standing affair to force his way back into the family. While he lays plans for the hit, he almost indifferently rekindles something approaching romance with hardened neighborhood girl Alla (Moira Kelly).
As the reunited brothers’ friendship evolves, Gray swiftly sets and sustains a palpable, dark-hued mood, and eases in the early rumblings of momentous catastrophe to come.
Joshua’s protectiveness toward his brother takes an almost envious edge as he weighs notions of his own Russian-Jewish ethnicity against what he sees as Reuben’s Americanness, and perhaps, redeemability. Scripting of these ideas is at times a little fanciful, but nevertheless is successful in enhancing the complexity of both characters.
Also well developed is Joshua’s relationship with Alla. Kelly stays off the obvious tough-girl route, to play her with a quiet kind of hostile moroseness.
As they lurch from a not entirely tender exchange into their initial love scene, accompanied only by ambient noise, Gray effectively conveys that both characters have little time for romantic illusions.
The Iranian contract is carried out (again with only harsh ambient noise heightening the job’s cold efficiency) while Reuben watches unseen, and later retrieves the gun. He is badly beaten by his father, who sees him heading inexorably down the same path as Joshua.
Conflict among the three cranks up menacingly to a higher wattage, further driven by the father’s knowledge that the mobsters out to repay Joshua are getting closer to their target.
When Reuben gets wind of this, events build quickly to a short, sharp, annihilating climax that keeps its violence on a surprisingly low level visually. The fact that much of it can be seen coming doesn’t cut in on the operatically tragic scene’s capacity to stun the audience.
Aside from the sometimes over emphatic use of richly portentous Russian choral music, ethnic scene-setting is subtly rendered. As the immigrant parents, both Schell and Redgrave work smoothly into the context, the former especially so, with his character covering an extended emotional field.
But their roles are secondary to those of the younger characters, in which all three thesps turn in acutely observed work. Roth appears as a man who, in many ways, is already dead, yet with nothing more than fleeting displays of compassion, he makes the character resonantly sympathetic.
Kelly also makes an indelible impression during her brief screen time. But perhaps the most striking is Furlong, whose intense gaze and fragile grace push his character under the audience’s skin without artifice. His fine work here stands to beam the young thesp into a new casting orbit.
Tom Richmond’s arresting widescreen lensing is high on compositional poise and low on fussy camera tricks. Frequently shot under a blanket of snow, the faded setting is given a bleak old-worldliness, and the film’s look profits heavily from the constant tonal shifts brought into play via keenly judged lighting.