LITTLE ODESSA (1995) ***
Tim Roth must insure his nasal appendage, and for a fortune, since his nose is his fortune. Though neither a Karl Malden-ish bulb nor a Cyrano-ish proboscis, Roth's nose has invaluable presence and character. It is pronounced, noticeable, gives him malevolence and seems to lead the rest of Roth.
It led him in his first hit role, as a hitman in Stephen Frears' "The Hit" (1984); it was perfect for his Vincent Van Gogh (in Robert Altman's "Vincent and Theo" (1990)) ; it helped him in subsequent films, notably in his killer-cop part in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," and even more in "Rob Roy" as the fop Cunningham, a sociopathic master swordsman, social climber, killer, rapist, sadist and thief who also steals all the scenes he is in.
Little Odessa is in Brighton Beach which is in Brooklyn. It is a Russian-Jewish emigre community that includes the Shapira family. To say that Joshua (Tim Roth) is the black sheep is an understatement, as, harking back to his first hitman role, Roth plays a hitman for the "organizatsya," the Russian Mafia. And he is even more psychotic than in "Rob Roy," though most parsimonious of speech.
The movie opens with Roth simply walking up to a bench and shooting a man as casually as a non-vegetarian swats a fly. From then on there is less of a story than a succession of ugly sketches and events around Roth.
Thrown out of his home at some past time, and exiled from Little Odessa for unclear (but murderous) acts, he returns there with another assignment. Though keeping to himself, he is put by the plot in touch with his family, starting with his kid brother Reuben who is very well played by Edward Furlong. Furlong looks nothing like Roth but by a miracle of casting or luck, the two are so well matched that you would see them as brothers in real life. And while Reuben's nose is perfectly normal, something about it speaks of parentage with Joshua's. It is uncanny.
The family includes a Yiddish-only speaking grandmother; mother Vanessa Redgrave who, dying of a brain tumor, gets championship mileage out of her few and unloquacious scenes; and father Arkady, played by Maximilian Schell as a somber, nouveau poor ex-member of the Russian intelligentsia who makes a living with a newsstand beneath the El, sacrificing himself for his family while carrying on with a young Russian beauty.
I will not discuss the conflicts and happenings, save to say that they are as somber as any "film noir" can manage, especially one that results in the destruction of a family in Greek tragedy fashion. Immeasurably reinforcing those darkest of moods are the sets, dismal interiors and dark, dank, ugly, exteriors (shot, by a providential necessity, during the 1994 blizzards in New York) which by overcast or snowy day or by ill-lit night are consistently depressing and evoke shabbiness, isolation, non-communication or emptiness. Like the brothers Shapira, this another perfect match of sights and moods.
You will probably sense the influence of Martin Scorsese in this ethnic movie of very mean streets, but this is no copycat picture. When Scorsese films his low-lifes and mostly Italian-American mobsters or apprentice hoods ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "GoodFellas," etc.) he does it with an idiosyncratic esthetic sense and often includes strong family ties not unlike those of Coppola's "Godfather" series. "Little Odessa" however, systematically eludes any signs of joy and warmth and any glimpses of beauty, even fleeting. Instead, there is (as in the Ashcan school) a parti-pris for ugliness and non-redemption. Notable and unbearable is the sequence in which Roth humiliates and almost executes his own father. This is oppressive stuff but there is something admirable about the writer-director's uncompromising positions.
Not that the film is without problems, such as occasionally unsteady cameras, focus and sound or wrong accents by Austrian-born Schell and sometimes Englishman Roth. There are unclarities, gaps and loose ends about Schell's past, certain killings and certain people. Some deja vu tragic errors, some dark-to-light- to-dark shots, are like rubbings of B-thrillers. A death-camp reminder in the shape of a furnace is both too obvious and artificial. The music, in this Jewish milieu, is, of all things, akin to the Russian Orthodox Liturgy!
But warts and all, this is an impressive first feature by a 25-year old New Yorker of Russian Jewish descent who studied film at the University of Southern California and who joins the ongoing explosion of interesting, independent American filmmakers.
Although the credits do not mention it, the film owes much to the famous Russian writer Isaac Babel's "Odessa Tales" (1923-24), which dealt with Jewish ghetto life.