Little Odessa

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by James Gray

With Tim Roth, Vanessa Redgrave, Miximilian Schell, and Edward Furlong

Writer-director James Gray’s Little Odessa is a dark movie–so dark you can’t see a thing. Not only is the cinematography somber and moody, the screenplay is opaque. No illuminating artistic vision casts any light into the shadows clouding our understanding; the film ends with the sense that things are still being hidden. It’s not as if we’ve witnessed something beyond comprehension–it’s more like Gray is withholding information, perhaps because he never had it in the first place. Little Odessa, which won the Silver Lion at the 1994 Venice film festival, is an elaborate bluff.

Essentially it’s a gangster film with a family component. Hit man Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) must return to the Russian Jewish emigre community of his childhood, New York’s Brighton Beach, to kill an Arab jeweler. At first he protests going back to his neighborhood, but he has an unstated obligation (in art films like Little Odessa the obligations are nearly always unstated–that way, they can be weighted with significance) to his unseen, unnamed employer that makes refusal impossible. His return to the neighborhood forces him to confront his Brooklyn past, including his family: philandering father, dying mother, and younger brother caught in the middle. Over the course of the film, the father philanders, the mother dies, and the brother is torn between admiration for his killer brother and his obligation to his abusive, belt-wielding pa.

The father, Arkady (Maximilian Schell), is an insufferable egoist who fancies himself an intellectual, an illusion Gray seems to share. Arkady mouths self-dramatizing poppycock about life’s burdens: his children aren’t disobeying him because he’s a bad father but because “God [is] punishing me.” When he calls to cancel a date with his mistress, he uses the telephone in his wife’s sickroom, causing her to wail in anguish. He also leaves her bedroom door open, which allows his younger son, Reuben (Edward Furlong), to gaze curiously at his sick mother, once again wailing (in anguish?) as her husband mounts her. This may not sound intellectual, but Arkady saves his pontificating for his mistress. “I had two sons,” he tells her. “I always tried to teach them. I played Mozart for them. I was stupid, I guess, to read to a child of two years Crime and Punishment.”

Arkady’s right. But why does Gray put such a gratuitous reference in the movie? Because it encourages reviewers to make the Dostoyevsky connection (some already have) when describing Little Odessa, giving the film a patina of seriousness beyond that of the typical gangster genre pic. (The wonderful classical score, featuring Jewish composers, is similarly elevating. Without it we might become aware that we’re watching a shoot-’em-up, a particularly boring, slow-paced one.) Of course, Gray never approaches Dostoyevsky’s depth. Little Odessa is Crime and Punishment with 500 pages cut: all that’s left is a skeletal plot. Joshua says, “I don’t wanna talk anymore” before any real conversation about his crimes even begins. When the characters do speak, they tend to belabor the obvious: “I don’t need a gun to be a man.” “I know you can change.” “I’m sorry I hit you, but you’re always running away.” (Irony!) “I don’t make apologies. If I make mistakes, I’m sorry.” (More irony!) “I spend my life working to make things better. Lord knows, I tried my best.” This dialogue may not sound problematic, but it’s all there is. This is the meat. Like the darkness and the seriousness, the ironies are all on the surface. Little Odessa is direct-by-the-numbers Dostoyevsky. Betrayals are inevitable with the first shot of haunted eyes and sound of sobbing classical music in the background. All that’s missing are bells clanging out, “Doom! Doom!”

The films noir of the 40s and 50s were dark because of budget constraints; shadows covered up the cheap sets. Noir cinematographers like John Alton created expressionistic landscapes of light and shadow: gangsters would step into halos of light like avenging angels looking for redemption. Little Odessa essays a more realistic milieu, but it’s so darkly lit that the effect is just as artificial–without the dramatic and expressional benefits of artificiality. In films noir, faces often popped out of the screen like bas-reliefs; but during Arkady’s long speech to his mistress about God, punishment, his children, and his other problems, the left half of his face is lost in shadow and the right is washed out. The loss of expressivity in Maximilian Schell’s timeworn countenance sabotages the dramatic effect of the lighting. His wife Irina (Vanessa Redgrave, who also played a dying matriarch in Howard’s End) is lit like a dim sunset, like a guttering candle. Every light in Joshua’s room at the Metropole Hotel seems to be on, yet it looks like he’s entering a dungeon. Why is everybody in the film so glum? Because the low speed of the film stock makes the world a dark, depressing place. The noir directors found drama in the disjunction of light and dark, but James Gray has made a gray film, without effective visual or dramatic contrasts.

In life as in art, we can best measure the depths of despair once we’ve experienced the heights of joy. But Gray’s approach is monochromatic. If he were to make a family film–the antithesis of Little Odessa–it would probably be so cheerfully bright the audience would be blinded by the end, and every time a character said “I love you,” the response would be “I love you too.” In Little Odessa the characters usually greet such avowals of affection with silence or slip into a foreign tongue, which is problematic for the monolinguals in the audience, especially since Gray provides subtitles only occasionally. Does he expect us to fill in the blanks, to provide our own dialogue? Essentially he’s asking the audience to invest the characters with more depth than he’s provided them. When Arkady cancels his date in the room of his dying wife, we must either charge Gray with a total departure from reality or assume that Arkady wants to hurt her. Later we hear a possible explanation for such vindictiveness: Irina slept with a general to get out of Russia. But such connections are far too few and too fleeting.

It also seems that Gray uses his characters’ Jewishness to give additional weight to the film, but without following through on his meaning. Joshua tells his brother, “We’re Jews, we wander.” Arkady tells his eldest son, “Even you must know there’s nowhere you can go.” Joshua burns the body of the “camel jockey” jeweler in a furnace at a dump site, saying “No body, no crime.” The reference to Holocaust ovens is reinforced with a shot of Reuben wearing a yarmulke at his mother’s funeral, smokestacks looming in the background. The movie ends with Reuben saying, “Joshua’s home.” Tellingly, this final scene also includes Russian without subtitles. By withholding information, perhaps Gray hopes to capture the characters’ overwhelming sense of helplessness, loss, and confusion. As a writer he also withholds information: sometimes the characters respond to questions with “I don’t know.” While “I don’t know” can be a profound statement if the viewer feels he’s witnessed something impossible to fully comprehend, in Little Odessa the response sounds merely evasive.

We’re so used to brutality in films that directors are always searching for new ways to be callous, and to make callousness funny. After the film’s final credit scrolls by, we see “the end”–a well-hidden joke far wittier than the brutal GoodFellas-influenced gags that predominate. A homeless man on crutches begging for his lost leg is told, “I don’t got your fuckin’ leg.” And the more nonchalant the delivery of a line like “Cut out his tongue,” the better. One kills as casually as one spits; Joshua has a banal attack of the sniffles just before he executes the Iranian jeweler. Since these days death has to be sudden and spastic and gross to be shocking, fluids fly in Little Odessa–Irina even regurgitates before she dies.

A sentimental flashback at the end seems to be tacked on only because otherwise Little Odessa would end with a gunfight, and then it wouldn’t be considered an art film. How much more subversive the film would have been if Gray had transposed an earlier sequence to the end: Reuben is watching what looks like a cheesy Burt Lancaster movie when the filmstrip melts. Dragging on his cigarette, oh so cool, full of the alienation of disaffected youth, he says to the projectionist, “So is that it?” The projectionist answers, “That’s it.” Gray could have encapsulated all his cynical ideas about life and entertainment and film in this one closing image.

In 1984, 77-year-old Peggy Ashcroft played the elderly Mrs. Moore in 76-year-old David Lean’s A Passage to India. A pessimistic older woman like Mrs. Moore is truly tragic, because her pessimism indicates that an entire lifetime hasn’t given her any answers, that happiness is impossibly elusive. But a pessimistic 25-year-old like James Gray risks seeming callow: his pessimism hasn’t been proven by a lifetime of struggle, and therefore it’s easier to discount. When Arkady returns home Reuben asks, “Did you get the syrup?” We don’t really need an answer to that question. Little Odessa is the kind of tragedy where the father always forgets the syrup.