Forty years ago, European directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, 1967) took much from the American crime movies that they loved. Poses, plots, gestures, the entire film noir mood was transplanted and aestheticised in a slightly abstract, ethereal way.
After the French Nouvelle Vague, American filmmakers of the 1960s such as Arthur Penn and Monte Hellman began enthusiastically repaying this European compliment. They returned with a new eye to their violent national genres. The resulting mixture of brutality and artiness was weird – something resembling a hard-boiled Antonioni.
Thirty years on, James Gray's Little Odessa is the fruit of this strange experiment. It is a carefully, even rigidly stylised piece in the European manner. Russian Jewish gangsters in New York's Brighton Beach district move slowly, in long shot, through wide, stark frames streaked with snow. Every heavy movement of Tim Roth's leather jacket is audible in the morbid stillness of the interior, domestic scenes.
It is a relentlessly despairing tale, almost risibly so. Joshua (Roth) is an amoral, unflinching hit-man who returns, like an alienated wanderer in a Wim Wenders film, to his home base. His mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is wailing in her death bed, and his father (Maximilian Schell) is a violent, unforgiving patriarch.
Josh has slightly more luck making contact with his adoring little brother Reuben (Edward Furlong), and an anomic old flame, Alla (Moira Kelly). Reuben keeps trailing after Josh with protective intent even after witnessing the extent of his professional cruelty; as for Alla, she seems to become instantly dependent despite sharing with Josh perhaps the bleakest and least intimate sex I have seen in movies for years.
With its dank atmosphere, model dysfunctional family and all-round interpersonal alienation, Little Odessa most recalls Bob Rafelson's Ozu-inspired The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Without ever raising the dramatic temperature or quickening the pace – that would be far too vulgar and spectacular – Gray slowly cooks up a tragedy. But this is not a plot-driven film; it reaches a conclusion, but its ultimate mood is deliberately irresolute, unsettling and irreconcilable.
I can admire this film in a distanced way, but I did not like it. Gray loads the bases right from the first shot: in this bleak prison of a world, no one is likely to experience even a shred of happiness or hope. Such a degree of bottomless, existential despair seemed to me rather contrived – neatly structured rather than deeply felt.
We are far, here, from the deep-dish verve and outrageousness of Tarantino. But Little Odessa is unmistakably American in at least one crucial respect: the shocking suddenness of its violence. This is not a bloody or sadistic film, but its portrait of a hit-man going about his business is indelibly chilling.
MORE Gray: The Yards
© Adrian Martin October 1995