Feels at its very core like groundwork, but it isn’t especially surprising to me considering the fact it was only James Gray’s debut film. Considering his own tendencies were still in growth here, it was only fitting that Little Odessa was in fact his own debut but it shares a common trait that has always bothered me so greatly about his work. They aren’t badly made films at all, but I try my best and no matter what, I just can’t find myself getting into them. Little Odessa is yet another one of those cases but the fact it’s only his debut feels very clear because right next to his other films, it still feels just like he’s working to form his trademarks on the spot. It hints only at what would be a promising filmmaker but on its own it doesn’t really stand out or do anything fairly remarkable. This won’t be the last James Gray film I watch after my fondness of The Lost City of Z, but I’m not sold in on his work yet.
It’s a basic story of family within the life of crime, probably not along the lines of The Godfather but the simplicity is something I actually admire greatly about it. Set against a backdrop of Brooklyn, what we have is a story of the effect violence leaves upon one soul, especially for the benefit of people he loves most. This concept alone almost reminds me in some ways of an Abel Ferrara film, because Ferrara plays upon this intense nihilism inside of his body of work no matter how small they are at their own heart, and there was a moment to myself where I actually found myself thinking that James Gray truly was able to make himself one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his own kind. The way to which Little Odessa stands merely feels like practice for a larger scale inside of his own body of work but I feel I would much rather his own approach stay to this scale rather than where he has gone since.
Unfortunately, where the film loses me comes from how as a whole, it’s just nothing really remarkable. James Gray has all the set pieces in the right places and he creates an experience up close with this sort of storytelling. It’s just that everywhere else, it doesn’t feel like James Gray is experimenting with anything new and as a result, I found myself almost wholly disengaged from the experience. Soon I was reminded of what it was that keeps me at a great emotional distance from Gray’s works as a whole, because there was a point to which I almost felt as if what Gray was creating in Little Odessa merely became about how depressing they are as a result. And depressing is something I actually like, but watching Little Odessa, I was merely struggling even to invest myself with the story being told. This isn’t even bad storytelling that James Gray is presenting here, but it’s merely frustrating.
This isn’t a badly made film at all, because the sheer grittiness of this piece can form something far more admirable but it comes from the nature of the film itself, and how it seems to have trouble working with tone. Gray certainly promises from Little Odessa a tale of heartbreak coming as a result of a life of crime, but then comes his own flair of melodrama which takes me out – not because I feel like it’s badly done (given as this was his debut, it feels less overbearing), rather instead because when it comes in, it almost feels so jarring to the tone of the work. Soon it became clear why I just didn’t find James Gray’s work nearly as engaging as I was hoping it would be to begin with, because Gray already has a great deal of trouble even trying to decide the sort of film Little Odessa wants to be. If it were possible for him to make a film that was both, so be it – but oftentimes these shifts in tone just don’t mix well together and thus it became hard enough trying to find much out of the film without the feeling of bluntness getting in the way.
At its most impressive, though, the exchanges between actors and the performances themselves are great, but it’s a result of a script that allows room for more. Tim Roth is incredible as always, but Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave were standouts among the whole bunch. I can’t say much for Edward Furlong’s performance because his own character arc presented itself as one of the least engaging aspects of Little Odessa, but that’s not to say he was bad in this role – I would have expected more out of Gray’s end as a director because the way he forms a character arc as shown from a work like this is absolutely stunning. And all throughout his career it has already been made clear that this is indeed where James Gray best finds himself suited, so it’s easy to expect far more. It feels like Claude Chabrol at its core, and with that having been said even Chabrol himself has expressed admiration for the work.
There’s a small level to where I’ll find myself recommending Little Odessa but as a whole it’s a work that I expected more from because Gray’s intentions were admirable as an experiment, but the final results were merely a cold shell as they stand. James Gray completionists will find themselves satisfied, but I can safely say that he isn’t a filmmaker that works for me as a whole. Like all of Gray’s works, there’s an audience that will most certainly be willing to seek these films out and because I admire what they’re setting out for, I just wish that I could ever find myself as a part of that crowd. It was disappointing as an experience, but I’m glad that I took time to watch it. For every great moment that comes in Little Odessa, it just doesn’t feel complete – and that’s the best way to describe what Gray’s style feels like given as this is his debut. James Gray just still had a lot more to learn.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via New Line Cinema.
Directed by James Gray
Screenplay by James Gray
Produced by Paul Webster
Starring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Moira Kelly
Release Year: 1994
Running Time: 98 minutes