This was James Gray’s first foray into the world of Russian organized crime. Less commercial and more personal than We Own the Night, Little Odessa is more about relationships than underworld mayhem. It’s a bleak and troubling character study built around a young Russian-Jewish hit man, the younger brother who idolizes him and their tyrannical father.
Tim Roth brings just the right mix of anger, hostility and cynicism to the character of Joshua Shapira, the mob assassin who has reluctantly come back to Brighton Beach to carry out a hit ordered by his boss. His return is a prodigal son story of sorts, featuring all the moral questions of the Biblical tale, but without the positive ending.
There are lots of cigarettes, cold sidewalks and leather-clad mobsters. And lots of unanswered questions.
The movie opens with Joshua coolly carrying out a hit in an unnamed city. He casually walks up to a man sitting on a bench and blows him away. The first words we hear come after he goes to a pay phone (cell phones were not yet in vogue when this movie was made), makes a call and tells his unseen mob boss, “It’s done.”
He’s then ordered to go to Brighton Beach to murder a jeweler. Joshua at first says he can’t go there. We never know why.
But he does go and the rest of the movie revolves around the hit man’s attempts at reestablishing connections with his family and his ex-girlfriend Alla (Moira Kelly) while trying to stay one step ahead of the local mobsters with an unexplained old score to settle with him.
Played out against a melancholy musical score heavy on Russian and Jewish religious and folk themes, Little Odessa tells the story of ethnic organized crime from the street level. There is no crime kingpin or Mafia boss dominating the action. The one scene in which we do meet some of the local Russian mob leaders is more about family betrayal than wise guys.
Mick LaSalle, in the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that the movie is at times “sodden and sluggish,” but praised writer/director James Gray’s “undeniable instinct for mood and atmosphere.” According to LaSalle, “The scenes shot in the family’s suffocating apartment tell you all you need to know about the childhood of these two young men.”
In fact, Joshua, his teenaged brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and their relationship with their father Arkady (Maximilian Schell) provide more drama than any of the action on the streets.
Vanessa Redgrave gives a touching performance as Irina Shapira, the wife and mother who is dying of a brain tumor. Redgrave’s role in the film is one long death scene broken up by the interactions of the other characters.
While we never know why Joshua left Brighton Beach, we learn quickly that his father played a role in his banishment and doesn’t want him back in the family apartment, even to see his bed-ridden mother.
Joshua and Reuben defy the old man to set up Roth’s scene with his dying mother, one of the most compelling in the movie. But how the caring son can be such a cold-hearted killer remains unexplained and inexplicable.
Shortly before dispatching the jeweler he has been sent to kill, Joshua asks the man if he believes in God. The jeweler, kneeling with his hands tied behind his back, says almost in tears that he does.
“We’ll wait 10 seconds and see if God saves you,” Joshua says. And then, after a short pause, he takes out his gun and blows a hole in the jeweler’s head.
The confrontational relationship between Joshua and his father climaxes when he takes Arkady at gunpoint to a snowy field and forces him to undress. The humiliation, the father believes, is a prelude to his murder. But he doesn’t say a word.
“You’re a big man, is that it?” Joshua asks of his stoic father.
“I don’t need a gun to be a man,” Arkady replies.
While both the father and the son survive the drama, nearly everyone they love ends up dead.
HIT: You can almost feel the cold air whipping across Brighton Beach in winter. Writer/director James Gray paints a bleak picture of the Russian-Jewish underworld and cinematographer Tom Richmond captures the atmosphere perfectly with his camera work.
MISS: Reuben has not been going to school for months and makes a point of checking the mail to intercept the letters that the school district sends to his father. But instead of destroying the letters, he hides them in his dresser where—surprise—his father eventually finds them.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “James Gray’s smart, brooding debut is only superficially a gangster picture. . . . The movie’s almost entirely free of bloodshed. When violence does come, it’s over almost instantly. Silence rushes back in, and the movie gets back to its primary business—painting its own atmosphere.”—Desson Howe, Washington Post
REALITY CHECK: Joshua is sent to Brighton Beach to kill a jeweler whom he watches walking to and from his shop. But he plans an elaborate kidnapping before he carries out the hit. At the same time, however, he simply walks up to a rival gangster who has spotted him on the streets of Brooklyn and blows the guy away. The jeweler, it seems, could have been dispatched just as easily.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: The performances are better than the story itself. Once is probably enough.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: James Gray was just 25 when he wrote and directed Little Odessa, which won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.
BEST LINE: “If there’s no body, there’s no crime,” Joshua matter-of-factly tells his associates, explaining why they have to incinerate their victim’s body after they kill him.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Not a lot of shooting, but what there is can be brutal, cold-blooded and heartless.
BODY COUNT: Six.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”