At Seattle’s Harvard Exit Theatre last May, first-time feature director James Gray pondered a question from the audience.
The subject had been the dark view espoused by Gray’s film, “Little Odessa.” Why, the questioner had asked, would someone make a film like this?
“I wonder,” Gray answered after a pause, “would you ask that of someone who had directed an upbeat film?”
Gray, a New York native who earned his filmmaking spurs at the University of Southern California, ended up stalking off the stage. Clearly, he is a man for whom such questions are troubling.
But, then, the world as he portrays it in “Little Odessa” is a troubling place. So the question, if not the questioner’s confrontational attitude, is apt.
“Little Odessa” tells the story of a professional hitman, Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth), whose home neighborhood is the Brighton Beach area of New York called Little Odessa (after the borough’s largely Russian emigre population). As the film opens, Joshua has returned home following a long absence.
His return, though, is as shadowy as his exit: He’s come back to murder a troublesome businessman. Since he left after pulling off a similar job, thereby angering the local Russian mob boss, Josh is trying to maintain a low profile.
Which is why he initially has no plans to contact his family - his beloved mother Irina (Vanessa Redgrave), his baby brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) but especially his brutal father Arkady (Maximilian Schell).
But his plans go awry when Reuben learns of his visit, tracks him down and tells him that Irina is dying of a brain tumor. Josh, a cold character if ever there was one, is touched by this news - and so his killing plans are put on hold. Temporarily.
Josh visits his mother, begins to reconnect with Reuben and tries to call a truce with his father. Later, he contacts a girl (Moira Kelly) he once fancied, and in her arms he finds a measure of peace.
Once again, though, the feeling is only temporary. For like that character in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” who lived under a constant cloud, Joshua infects everything he touches. And, so, it is only a matter of time before his sense of safety self-destructs in a blaze of gunfire.
One of director Gray’s biggest strengths is his ability to draw fine performances from his talented cast. Roth, the chameleon of such notable films as “Pulp Fiction” and “Vincent and Theo,” is a warped glacier of emotions whose efficiency at killing is fueled by a desperately suppressed rage.
And Schell, the Oscar-winning veteran, is the perfect source of that anger: an unyielding if not unfeeling man whose own rage is best expressed with a flashing belt.
Furlong, the “Terminator 2” star, puts in another credible performance, as does Kelly as the girl who got left behind and, in particular, Redgrave as the doomed Irina.
Gray, too, does a good job of capturing the slate-gray feeling of a Brighton Beach winter (the entire movie was shot in just 26 days). The barren beach scenes add especially to the film’s harsh mood.
But aside from its technical aspects, “Little Odessa” seems to be missing something. Maybe what’s lacking is an overall context for both these characters and the events that, ultimately, mark them.
For, when all is said and done, has anyone learned anything here? Has Roth’s world changed for the better? And if not, what then is Gray’s point? Simply that destiny will out no matter how hard we try to change? And if so, what then? What, indeed, then?
Those are legitimate questions to ask of any filmmaker, upbeat or no. They are, in fact, the very questions any serious filmmaker is obliged to answer.
Whether he be James Gray or, for that matter, Walt Disney.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Little Odessa” ** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by James Gray, starring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell, Moira Kelly and Vanessa Redgrave. Running time: Rating: R