While at Southern Cal, Gray wowed local scouts with a student film called Cowboys and Angels. Producer Paul Webster--who oversaw Tim Robbins's political satire Bob Roberts and the underrated Gary Oldman police thriller Romeo Is Bleeding--particularly encouraged him, and their first collaboration holds plenty of promise for the future: No one can teach the moviemaking instincts Gray displays here, and Webster continues to gamble with volatile material less courageous producers won't touch.
Filmed over the course of the brutal New York winter of 1993-94, Little Odessa chronicles the decline and fall of the Shapira family, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to ground in Brighton Beach, apparently, in that crucial historical moment when the Soviet Union was collapsing and budding Russian entrepreneurship was taking all kinds of mutant forms--good and evil--in two hemispheres.
When Gray drops us into the frozen streets of Brooklyn, the imperious Shapira family patriarch, Arkady (Maximilian Schell), is still operating a newsstand, a station in life he considers below the dignity of an aristocrat versed in Mozart and Tolstoy, and he's still beating his younger son with his belt in lieu of meaningful communication. In the family's gloomy walkup, Arkady's wife, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave), is wasting away from a brain tumor, and their Americanized teenage son, Reuben (Edward Furlong), has been ditching school for two months, hanging in the street trying to find a niche in cross-cultural limbo.
Enter the prodigal son, to wreak havoc. Still in his twenties, Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) has become a soulless hit man for the organizatsya, the Russian mafia. In the film's first scene, we watch him blow a guy away in broad daylight under a canopy of palm trees. Roth, looking scummy, rat-faced and emotionless in his hustler's leather coat, concludes this nasty piece of business with a fleeting sneer, tucks his automatic into his belt and walks away.
But not even a killer automaton can walk away from his family. A pariah and a marked man in his old neighborhood, Joshua is nonetheless ordered back there for another job. In the process, he winds up humiliating the father who hates him (and who's made him what he is), cradling the head of his dying mother in his arms and involving the little brother who worships him in a series of dangerous dilemmas.
It's snowing, of course, the reptiles are lying in wait, and the entire Shapira family is about to be ensnared in a web of criminal and personal betrayals. The atmosphere Gray creates is as thick as blood and as gloomy as a Dostoevsky novel; on the psychosexual front, you feel as though Oedipus Rex has been plunked down in the middle of Mean Streets.
Sound vaguely familiar? The contemporary model for this kind of thing is, of course, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, which continues to loom over serious American filmmaking like a colossus. Gray, who was born and raised in Queens, is of Russian-Jewish extraction himself, but like many young directors, he happily kneels at the altar of St. Francis. With telling snatches of tough-guy dialogue, with Tom Richmond's dark, foreboding cinematography, with yet another major sequence in which simultaneous rituals of gangland murder and family celebration have been cross-cut, Gray pays homage to Coppola.
But does he write his own kind of tragedy?
Not now, not quite yet. This talented filmmaker means to give us a glimpse of a mysterious, secret world we haven't seen before, but the Corleones have already provided the grand tour. Little Odessa's food, language and specific milieu, along with its down-and-dirty indie-movie look, may be departures, but its obsessions are all old friends. Greed, crime, loyalty and the spectacle of family disintegration are still the matters at hand here, and although Gray's work is inventive and exciting, it betrays his debts to a master almost everywhere you look. Give him time and a couple of outings; he'll doubtless find his way to a place where character is as important as atmosphere and where his movies feel like no one else's.
Meanwhile, he already has a splendid way with actors. As the wintry Arkady, who's eminently capable of betrayal himself, the veteran Schell seems invigorated, and he's spellbinding in a rather thinly written part. Roth, a member of the Quentin Tarantino rat pack, gives us an icy portrait of a man who has torn himself loose from two cultures, as well as his own emotions. He manages to transcend cliche. As the dying mother, Redgrave doesn't have much to do, but Furlong, the kid with the big, liquid eyes who got swept into cyberspace in Brainscan and played Jeff Bridges's lonely son in American Heart, can absolutely break your heart in Little Odessa--even when he's doing something so simple as smoking a joint or lying on his bed with a comic book.
Talk about an auspicious debut. I'll be going back for another look at James Gray's first feature in a few weeks, and I can hardly wait for the next one. He's the sort of new talent who gives you hope for the American film industry in a time when conformity, formula and pursuit of the buck are the orders of the day.