written and directed by James Gray
starring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Moira Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Paul Guilfoyle, David Vadim
Sometimes the giddiness of gun play has terrible personal consequences that cannot be readily foreseen. In this film Joshua Shapira is a Russian mobster who puts hits on various individuals who have crossed the family. When we first meet him he rushes a man sitting on a park bench and puts a bullet in his head. He is able to commit such deeds without emotion because he has managed to shut himself off from all humanity. He is instructed to return to his old Brooklyn neighborhood where his parents and brother live and begrudgingly accepts the job. He is forced to face a father named Arkady (Schell) who initially attempts to prevent him from seeing his mother Irina (Redgrave) who is dying of cancer. His little brother Reuben (Furlong) worships him and their bond is clearly tight although it appears to be difficult for Joshua to effectively convey his feelings.
Joshua is a spent character who always seems to be moving against a strong wind. He is rudderless and caught up in a life with no color and where he is routinely called upon to take a life that doesn?t belong to him. The film focuses much of its attention on the relationship between Joshua and Reuben. Joshua?s return vitalizes Reuben and he clearly enjoys having the company of his big brother who brings a bit of danger and excitement into his life. Reuben is presented as a good kid with an inclination to follow in his brother?s footsteps. He?s not cut out to be a full fledged criminal but he remains curious throughout about what it means to participate in such a lifestyle. He is both horrified and galvanized when he witnesses his brother execute a rival crime boss. Yet, it doesn?t cause him to turn away from Joshua; it?s just another secret he is forced to endure.
Alla (Kelly) is a local girl who was once sweet on Joshua. They rekindle their romance and there is a soft melancholy about their time together. Naturally she does not know about the severity of his behavior and remains a sort of innocent throughout the film. What she knows is never quite revealed although it seems possible that she might know more than she lets on. She tries to be a reasoning influence on Joshua but it doesn?t really work. He is trapped in a life that has but one purpose and most likely one ending. He seems to know it. It is apparent that he doesn?t quite know just why he is doing what he is doing although he continues to behave in the same manner with impunity. He is callous and heartless yet there is a vulnerable side to him that comes out when he?s with his mother, brother or especially Alla. He?s an excruciatingly sympathetic character despite the sheer horror of his brutality. There is something quite warm about the character and one truly wants to see him turn his back on his career, whatever the consequences.
Tim Roth plays Joshua with a steely determinism that is expressed whenever he is participating in gang-related activity. When not so engaged he allows his character?s defenses to come down slowly and almost imperceptibly over the course of the film. This might be because he is losing his footing and becomes increasingly less comfortable in himself although he betrays this confusion with his hard routine and degrees of senseless violence against those he is hired to dispatch. Roth conveys the sense that his character has become something ghastly to himself and that he finds it difficult to move forward on his broken agenda. Yet he does and quickly things turn into a hell that most certainly shatters him utterly into shards.
This film aches with a sensibility that corrodes the heart and leaves the viewer gasping and heartbroken. It?s one of those films that leaves a scar and the final scenes are fraught with agony from which the body cannot be cleansed. Naturally Joshua?s world completely collapses as his scant moorings are suddenly removed and he is left to face the consequences of his actions which he seems to have never truly considered before. He is left in hell with no way of putting the pieces back together in order to reassemble a life. It?s brutal and terribly sad in a way that resonates long after the film has concluded.
Maximilian Schell gives a powerful, reserved performance in this film that is direct and totemic. His character is so delicately controlled throughout much of the film and embodies a legitimate humility that is born aloft through his gait and gestures. Just the way he smokes a cigarette reveals his ease of being. Edward Furlong captures Reuben?s wide-eyed view of his world with a clear, straightforward performance filled with quiet moments of reflection. Furlong is thrilling to watch as his character attempts to comprehend the nature of his brother who he hasn?t seen in years and who their mother thought long dead. Tim Roth is dynamic and portrays his character as deeply wounded which he reveals through his eyes and facial gestures. This is perhaps the quintessential Roth performance based on how much anguish he is able to release into the audience through the simplest of movements. Joshua embodies both a menacing side and one that is more loving and tender although as mentioned he is still closed off even from his family and most likely doesn?t know himself all that well. Moira Kelly gives a well-balanced performance that expresses Alla?s genuine calm and steadfastness.
Overall, this film is deeply affecting and gets more so over time. The characters are properly formed and fully believable and remain so throughout. There is a purity to the film and it works well on every level, particularly as it explores the strained yet loving relationship between two brothers. It?s a dark ride into the psyche of a man who can just as easily plug a bullet into the skull of a man as read a newspaper. Joshua has embraced a life of violence and knows emphatically that such an existence has its perils. He just wasn?t counting on the particular circumstances with which he is ultimately forced to make sense of. Fate brings him an ugly deal that nothing whatsoever can fix.