Thursday 24 June 2021

Movie Review: Little Odessa (1994)

A crime drama, Little Odessa is a slow-burning character study overburdened by a grim mood and slow pacing.

Assassin Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) is pressured by his employer to return to his home neighbourhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to eliminate an Iranian jeweller. Joshua has been estranged from his Russian immigrant family for years, ever since he fled the neighbourhood after killing the son of local Russian mobster Volkoff.

Now he reconnects with his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong), father Arkady (Maximilan Schell) and ailing mother Irina (Vanessa Redgrave). Joshua also seeks out ex-girlfriend Alla (Moira Kelly), and plans the assassination of the jeweller with a group of allies. But his prolonged stay in the neighbourhood allows Volkoff to start plotting a long-awaited revenge.

Written and directed by James Gray, Little Odessa is 98 minutes of familial bleakness interrupted by short and sharp acts of violence. Other than brief scenes of Joshua fulfilling his murderous assignments, this is a story of an immigrant family torn apart by a prodigal son, with the added strain a mother on her death bed. Head of the family Arkady is not on speaking terms with Joshua, and juggles caring for wife Irina with having an affair while pinning all hope for a better offspring on younger son Reuben.

Despite demonstrating courage by embracing the dark, avoiding over-exposition, and allowing pain points to ooze out through creaky joints of broken trust, Gray provides few reasons to specifically care about the Shapiras. Arkady's story may have been the most compelling, but here he is a side character. Instead the main focus is the brotherly bond between lost cause Joshua and potentially salvageable Reuben. Through no fault of the actors, their connection is static: Reuben secures a front row seat to his brother's crime-infested life, observing what he shouldn't. But neither brother is provided an arc towards something different, and the film strikes the same emotional tones throughout.

Little Odessa moves slowly and at low energy levels, from dour to sullen. Killing is Joshua's chosen line of business, and for his family, this business is bad. 

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