James Gray’s “Little Odessa” (1994)

 Notable Festivals: Venice (Silver Lion: Best Supporting Actress), Toronto, Sundance

Outside of independent film circles, director James Gray isn’t well-known.  His filmography mostly flies under the radar of the larger moviegoing public, but what little output he does have is almost always well-received by critics.  As a storyteller, Gray specializes in stark chamber dramas with Shakespearean levels of familial conflict– not exactly fodder for the 3D blockbuster set.  However, give the man a little bit of your time, and you too will realize that Gray’s uncompromising vision is poised to one day deliver him into the pantheon of great American directors.

I feel a deep kinship with Gray in that we both are largely influenced by cinema of the 1970’s– that bastion of compelling drama and character-driven storytelling.  When I envision myself making a drama, it usually looks a lot Gray’s austere work.  Naturally, I respond to the man’s films on an aspirational and intangibly visceral level.

Gray hails from The Bronx, and the subject matter of his films hasn’t strayed too far from that general sphere of influence.  He was inspired to become a filmmaker after viewing the works of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, two directors whose touch can still be felt in Gray’s recent work.  He learned his craft in the venerable halls of USC’s School of Cinema-Television, cutting his teeth on two shorts- 1990’s TERRITORIO and 1991’s COWBOYS AND ANGELS.  The strength of the latter landed him an agent right out of school, and catapulted him directly into the making of his first feature, LITTLE ODESSA (1994).

Because neither TERRITORIO or COWBOYS AND ANGELS are (to my knowledge) publicly available, I’ll start the dissection of Gray’s ouevre with LITTLE ODESSA.  The film is set during the cold winter months in New York City’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, populated predominantly by Russian immigrants.  Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth), a calculating hitman, takes on a job that brings him back to the neighborhood he grew up, near the family he hasn’t talked to in years.  When his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) seeks him out to share the news that their mother Irina (Vanessa Redgrave) is dying, Joshua is forced to reconcile with his estranged family and potentially compromise his operations.  Inevitably, his return will have tragic and devastating consequences for all those caught in the wake.

At first glance, one would never know this was Gray’s first film, and that he was only twenty five at the time of its production.  The performances are incredibly accomplished and heartfelt.  Roth doesn’t get to headline a film very often, but he makes the most of it here by turning in a chilling, focused performance as a contract killer in the process of an emotional breakdown.  He embraces the greasy sleaze that the role requires, but also finds the humanity and the empathy within those fortified walls.  As the younger brother Reuben,  Furlong builds on the promise seen in his debut, James Cameron’sTERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991).  Furlong belongs in that specialized sect of actors, populated by the ghosts of James Dean, Brad Renfro, and River Phoenix, who would command striking, powerful performances early in their careers before succumbing to vice and personal demons stemming from their success.  Whereas Furlong isn’t exactly dead yet, he’s arguably squandered his potential by dabbling in hard drugs and straight-to-video shlock. But in LITTLE ODESSA, Furlong bubbles with a focused intensity and angst.  The story really belongs to the family dynamics of these two brothers, and the consequences of Joshua and Reuben’s life choices make for incredibly compelling tragedy.

The supporting cast is comprised of lesser-known faces, but they make no less an impact.  Vanessa Redgrave, as the brothers’ sickly mother, is a stark reminder of the frailty of life and the inevitability of death.  She is a source of strength for her boys, but as her health rapidly worsens, so do the prospects for a bright future for Joshua and Reuben.  Maximilian Schell plays Arkady, the tired patriarch and embodiment of the Shapira clan’s cultural heritage.    An Eastern European sensibility runs through all of Gray’s work, and Arkady is perhaps the first concrete example of that influence within his filmography.

Gray partners with Director of Photography Tom Richmond to create a lived-in, worn-out look that suits the subject matter and the setting.  Shot on 35mm film and presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, LITTLE ODESSA is a gorgeous-looking work.  Richmond and Gray create an image that’s high in contrast, with an even color scheme that deals in a predominantly black and brown palette.  The 70’s cinema of Scorsese and Coppola (especially 1972’s THE GODFATHER) are a huge formative influence on Gray, and it’s evident that he tries to replicate that sepia-tinged look in his own body of work.  He adopts a classical, minimalist approach to his framing and pacing, yet he subtly redefines it for the contemporary era.  No shot is frivolous or wasted.  Each frame is carefully considered.

Grey often composes shots using tangible framing elements like doorways or windows.  The effect, while somewhat distancing, has the effect of voyeurism; it’s as if we are ghosts drifting through the walls of tiny tenement houses and bearing witness to incredibly private family conflicts.  Gray supplements this effect with a variety of considered camerawork, mostly comprised of traditionally locked-off tripod shots as well as dolly movements.  He also incorporates handheld camerawork, albeit sparingly, as a strategic tool that modernizes the aesthetic of his classical forefathers.

Gray also creates a realistic sonic landscape to match and augment his visual work.  While the credits list a collaboration with Dana Sano for the film’s music, Gray largely eschews the use of score throughout the film.  This allows the story developments to resonate without music emotionally manipulating the audience.  However, Gray does use a variety of circa-90’s source music to establish his setting and timeframe.  The most powerful musical elements of the film, however, are when he uses operatic choral music to underscore the tragic elements of his gritty family drama.  Much like the use of similar music in THE GODFATHER, the style of music communicates a rich cultural lineage stemming from The Old World that fits the film’s deeper themes.

As a debut work, Gray shows a considerable amount of confidence.  It’s even more stunning when you consider that he created a film as accomplished as LITTLE ODESSA at the age when most other guys are still doing keg stands during Homecoming Week parties at their old fraternities.  His filmmaking career starts with a bang— quite literally, as the first scene is Roth crossing the street to shoot a guy sitting on a park bench, point blank in the head.  More importantly, however, is that LITTLE ODESSA begins a career-long exploration of the modern immigrant experience in America; more specifically, that of the Russian and Eastern European background.  Theirs is a rich heritage full of deep-seated religious beliefs, customs, and rituals.

Gray is interested in exploring how these Old World cultures assimilate into the melting pot of the New.  It’s important that the action takes place in the outer boroughs of NYC.  Gray’s characters are outsiders, doomed to the fringes of civilization and only able to look upon the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan (itself an embodiment of the American Dream) from afar.

Another aspect of Gray’s work worth mentioning, and already apparent in his first work, is the theatrical nature of his stories.  Unlike Sam Mendes, whose craft is influence by a seasoned career in directing for the stage, Gray’s character dramas more closely resemble Greek tragedy in their exploration of inter-familial conflict.  However, I also see a secondary, less-mentioned influence in Gray’s work– that of the Shadow Plays from the Far East.  Gray makes compelling and artful use of shadows and silhouettes throughout his work as a storytelling tool, and as a way to inject expressionism into his otherwise starkly realistic narratives.  Cinema itself finds its roots in the Shadow Play tradition, (objects projected onto canvas via light), so it’s fitting that a cinema purist like Gray incorporates it into his aesthetic.

In the eighteen years since its release, LITTLE ODESSA has drifted into relative obscurity.  I only saw the film for the first time a few days ago, but I imagine that it’s still as potent and relevant as the day it was released.  There’s a hustle, a deep urgency, at play here– not just for the immigrant characters of Gray’s story, but for Gray himself, in an energetic bid to play in the Big Leagues.  It’s not a perfect film– indeed, I caught many beginner mistakes (like a microphone dropping into the shot)– but it is a powerful and highly-overlooked experience.  LITTLE ODESSA, for one, is a reminder that Furlong was (and still could be) a truly great actor.  However, he’s only one small part of a much more intricate narrative.  I suspect that once Gray gains more recognition from the cinephiles of the world, they’ll look to LITTLE ODESSA as the first important work of a major American storyteller.  Here’s to hoping that, one day, Criterion comes calling and gives it the treatment it deserves.

LITTLE ODESSA is currently available on standard definition DVD from Fine Line Features and Artisan.