City by the Sea
Director : Michael Caton-Jones
Screenplay : Ken Hixon (based on the article "Mark of a Murderer" by Michael McAlary)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Robert De Niro (Vincent La Marca), Frances McDormand (Michelle), James Franco (Joey Nova), Eliza Dushku (Gina), William Forsythe (Spyder), George Dzundza (Reg Duffy), Patti LuPone (Maggie), Anson Mount (Dave Simon), John Doman (Captain Henderson), Brian Tarantina (Snake)
City by the Sea, which is about a veteran New York police detective who must track down his own murder-suspect son, was based on a true story reported in the pages of Esquire by journalist Michael McAlary in 1997. Yet, it never feels real. For all the grit and dirt and smoke and trash that fill virtually every scene in the film, reminding us of the realities of urban decay and its connection to familial decay, it constantly feels fabricated—utterly fictional—perhaps because it is constantly striving so desperately for relevancy and meaning. It is nothing if not earnest.
The narrative about the detective having to deal with the fact that his son might be a murderer is just the tip of the iceberg. It's the hook that brings you into what is ultimately a depressing series of stories about people who have made the wrong choices all their lives and pay for them dearly. Virtually every major character is defined primarily by a wrong choice he or she made and the resulting consequences. It is to the film's credit that it doesn't try to wrap all this up in the last reel; instead, it relies on a cautiously optimistic, but still slightly ambiguous ending that conveys a tiny sense of triumph in a world otherwise defined by pain and loss.
Robert De Niro stars as Detective Vincent La Marca, who walked out on his wife (Patti LuPone) and son 14 years earlier. His son (James Franco, last seen in Spider-Man), now a young man in his 20s, is a homeless heroin junkie who eeks out an existence on the now-deserted and decaying boardwalks of Long Beach, going by the name Joey Nova. One night, Joey is involved in a drug deal that goes wrong, and he ends up stabbing and killing a dealer in self-defense (he is also high at the time). He and an accomplice dump the body, but it washes up in New York, and soon Joey finds himself being hunted by both the police (his friend rats him out) and another dealer, a cruel mullet-headed hood named Spyder (William Forsythe), who thinks Joey took off with $4,000 of his money.
Vincent has been estranged from his ex-wife and son for many years, and in that time he has created an entirely separate life away from them. He has been involved with Michelle (Frances McDormand), a woman who lives in his apartment building, for a year, yet she knows virtually nothing about him. In fact, for a good third of the film, we know very little about Vincent. Screenwriter Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abbotts) purposefully keeps Vincent's past in the dark, allowing small bits of information to leak out here and there, until finally we are given a scene between him and Michelle in which he comes clean about all his secrets (the torrent of past baggage he lays on her in this scene is so much it almost becomes morbidly funny).
One of the most significant of Vincent's secrets involves his own father, which plays into the film's primary theme of male violence as something that is passed down through the family. There is a constant tension throughout between free will and genetic predestination, always questioning whether Joey's violent actions were the inescapable result of his heritage or the bad choices of a misguided young man high on drugs. This also brings up questions about Vincent's responsiblity, as he left his son when he was just a child. Did this doom Joey to a life on the streets as a junkie and criminal? Vincent constantly asserts that Joey makes his own choices and, if he did indeed choose to kill someone, he must pay the price. Yet, there is something that rings slightly false about this assertion, as if it is Vincent's defense mechanism against facing his own culpability. When it turns out that Joey has a young son of his own, the issues of fatherhood and abandonment are pushed that much more to the front.
In this sense, City by the Sea is a provocative and gutsy thriller, yet it's hard to escape the feeling that it brings up far more issues—fatherhood, urban decay, police brutality, existentialism, for God's sake—than it can possibly deal with. Director Michael Caton-Jones, who worked with De Niro before in This Boy's Life (1993), which also dealt with issues of male generational violence, does his best to keep all the issues afloat, and it is to his credit that the film remains intriguing throughout, despite a rote stand-off at the climax.
He and cinematographer Carl Walter Lindenlaub (The Haunting) make the most of the symbolically rich decay of the once trendy Long Beach scene, opening the film with stock footage from an earlier era when it was a place of happiness, instead of the perpetually gray ruins depicted in the present. Vincent remarks at one point that his father used to take him there when he was a child, making Long Beach itself is a literal visualization of his family's crumbling relations. That the movie ends there, as well, with the suggestion that, at the very least, an attempt at rebuilding is underway is the closest it gets to a positive sentiment about the troubles its characters will face for the rest of their lives.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick