Director: James Gray
Good, not great
Heads up! There's a young phenom of a director on the scene, who may well create some beautiful films in years to come. Twenty-five year old James Gray has put together an impressive, but flawed, debut picture called Little Odessa. Not many untried twenty-five year olds get to make their coming-out pictures with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell. This recent grad of the USC film school must be leading a charmed life. Apparently his student film project got the attention of producer Paul Webster, who pulled the strings to assemble the cast and crew for this movie. Gray wrote the story himself.
What's impressive about Little Odessa is its cinematic and dramatic quality. It is richly photographed by Tom Richmond, and skillfully edited by Dorian Harris. Sound and music bolster the images superbly. The images are captivating. The wide screen is a canvas for Richmond; he composes scenes thoughtfully, and lights them carefully. He maintains a strong visual key, and with Gray, Harris, and the music editors has blended sequences effectively.
The film's dramatic assets derive from solid performances. Redgrave and Schell are the parents of a Russian emigré family, living in the "Little Odessa," neighborhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Eighteen year old Edward Furlong is convincing as the family's youngest son, Rueben. Tim Roth plays the older son Joshua, a hit man for the Russian Mafia. Roth's performance is the weakest of the four principal roles— too bad, he's the star. He isn't awful, just one-dimensional. His character is cold. Roth plays cold well; end of story.
There is one really bad minor performance: David Vadim as Sasha. If I want to see a young Marlon Brando, I'll rent a video. When will young male actors realize that acting like Brando isn't acting, it's mimicking?
James Gray has a quality that's admirable in a young director. He is able to understate things. We've had thirty years of in-your-face film making, with every drop of shed blood splattered all across the screen, and every sexual experience sold as the agony and the ecstasy. Gray is able to have his characters make love quietly, and just fall down when they die. He can let a nearly inconspicuous pool of blood represent the horror of a scene, instead of showing us all the detail. It would be OK if he were to go even further in this direction with his future work.
Gray has put together a nice package here, but its story is weak, and its characterization is spotty. The minor characters are well drawn, but Gray left Joshua, his centerpiece, too bare. We know Joshua's evil and cold; we also know he wants to be otherwise, and is able to love, as long as he doesn't have to admit it. But we don't know why. There's precious little material to tell us what makes him tick, or keeps him from ticking.
The same kind of shortcoming ultimately afflicts the plot. A few of its critical details go unexplained, and I was left asking, "So what?" at the end. Gray chose to work in the risky dramatic arena of dark tragedy. He almost won. He has said he wanted to avoid sentimentality, and he succeeded in that. But tragic characters require flaws we can all see in ourselves. The Joshua character has a hardness that isolates him from people, but that isn't enough of a flaw to have created all the tragedy that befalls him. It's too common. Joshua's father is the character who suffers the most, and it's difficult to find his flaw. He seems to have spawned the cold isolation that affects Joshua, but it isn't enough to explain his tragedy either.
Perhaps Gray is just creating an old fashioned morality play. The moral: If you're rotten, you'll break things you can't fix.
So, after some reflection, I think maybe I know where the story was going. But the story by itself didn't keep me thinking long enough to get the message (If indeed, I did get it). The cinematic strength— the brilliant images, and haunting sounds— might have kept my mind searching for the answers to Gray's puzzle, but I don't know. It may be that the only reason the movie stuck with me long enough to deliver its message is that I'm writing about it.
If I had just seen Little Odessa and gone on with my day, I think the only message I'd have gotten is to watch for Gray's upcoming films, and see if he matures into the kind of film maker I think he'll be.
© 1996, J. C. Adamson