A glum psychological thriller that can't decide whether it wants to be an angst-ridden character study or a conventional suspense yarn, "Little Odessa" is ultimately unable to succeed at being either one.
In the end, it plays out like one of Woody Allen's soap opera dramas crossed with a Martin Scorsese gangster flick.The story has solemn, matter-of-fact professional hit man Tim Roth receiving an assignment that sends him to the Russian-Jewish Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. And wouldn't you know it, the area just happens to be home, sweet home.
So, against his better judgment, Roth decides to visit his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who is sick and dying with a brain tumor. This, naturally, puts him in contact with his troubled younger brother (Edward Furlong), who idolizes him, and his abusive, cold-hearted father (Maximilian Schell). (Later, he even looks up his old girlfriend, played by Moira Kelly.)
Unfortunately, this little family reunion puts Roth's parents and brother in danger from local enemies who are on the watch for him. But more importantly - at least as far as the film is concerned - it also pits him against Dear Old Dad, who doesn't exactly approve of his son's chosen profession. (Although, when Roth discovers that his father is cheating on his dying mother, he feels a little less guilty.)
There are back-stories that are touched upon, though they are never sufficiently explained, as everyone demonstrates guilt over past indiscretions. As a result, the characters' motivations are rather muddy, and it doesn't help that everyone in the picture is miserable and overwrought.
Then there's the problem of focus. Writer-director James Gray chooses to build the story around the teenage boy and how he is influenced by his big brother the hit man - but the hit man is the more interesting character, and the film might have benefited from exploring how he got where he is.
Still, there are some saving graces: Some of the cryptic dialogue crackles, the cinematography is moody (the film is set in the dead of winter) and the performances are very good - especially Roth and Furlong, whose scenes together are quite effective. Red-grave is also good, quite touching in her bedridden role.
"Little Odessa" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.