City by the Sea
Get past the ponderous, pretentious title and you find yourself in a tight, resonant story about a father confronted by the pain of his childhood and the likelihood that he will pass that pain along to his own son. Robert De Niro is New York City police detective Lieutenant Vincent LaMarca, born in the 'city by the sea' of Long Beach, Long Island, where when he was 8 years old his father was executed by the state for the murder of a kidnapped child. Now Vincent's son Joey (James Franco), a drug addict who is involved in a murder himself, is suspected of killing Vincent's own detective partner.
Joey hangs out in the abandoned beachfront casino of this derelict 'city', scoring when he can, dreaming of escaping his addiction by finding enough money to get to Key West. Vincent left him and his mother (Patti LuPone) fourteen years ago, and has had no contact with Joey since then. Instead he has confined himself to a casual relationship with his downstairs neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand), and worked hard at hiding his own grief and shame from her and the world. Now, though, as his son is a police target, Vincent cannot hide from his own demons and must try to reconnect with Joey, even if only to arrest him and bring him in safely, before other cops shoot him.
This is a story so unlikely that it could only be true, and it is, based on an actual case that was written up in Esquire magazine. It is also the kind of story that rightly belongs to a writer like Georges Simenon or a filmmaker like Claude Chabrol or Julien Duvivier, two masters who made their careers on the tales of bleak lives confronting death and the past at the moment they converge. They would let us sit and watch, trusting the story to speak for itself, allowing us to experience the overtones and implications for ourselves.
Here, though, director Michael Caton-Jones insists on laying on the atmosphere with a trowel - particularly the abandoned beachfront sites of Long Beach (Asbury Park stands in for the actual, unphotogenic town) - and uses an overly kinetic camera to draw needless pictures of poverty and abandonment. He does not trust his material or his actors enough to let things play out by themselves, in their own time.
And his actors are very fine indeed. The aging Robert De Niro's face is a road map of pain and control, and his voice, growing hoarser and softer with the years, is compelling enough to carry almost any line he's required to deliver. McDormand, as his occasional lover, is the most un-actorly of actors. She is simply Michelle to her fingertips, refusing to 'act' the role when others might chew the scenery. And James Franco as Joey has the haunted eyes and the snakelike body language of the desperate addict running from both death and the responsibilities of life.
All of this makes for a very good if not great film, until the dread hand of melodrama makes its appearance about fifteen minutes before the end, when all the worst clichés of Hollywood studio rewrites take over the movie's script and hammer it almost to death. An abandoned child, an evil drug lord, and a shootout all conspire to turn what could have been a dark and classic story into a neat little television show, turning pain and redemption into standard schmaltz.