CITY BY THE SEA
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, Patti LuPone, George Dzundza, Anson Mount
MPAA Rating: (for language, drug use and some violence)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 9/6/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
Learning that City by the Sea is based on a true story (without the filmmakers shoving the fact down your throat) is quite a shock. That this tale of family woe, resembling the stuff of Greek tragedy, actually happened makes the film absolutely devastating on a certain level. Here are people trapped by fate, and they know it. It seems too thematically sound to be true, but it is. Based on the late Mike McAlary’s article "Mark of a Murderer," City by the Sea is a film of abundant subtext and surprising emotional depth resting just below the surface of its simplistic, predictable police procedural fashionings. Director Michael Caton-Jones is smart to focus on these more character-driven elements in between sequences of detective work, which helps to balance even the most obvious plot fabrications. The script machinations unfortunately leave something to be desired and lessen the film’s ultimate impact, but this is not just a typical detective thriller—there’s something much wiser underneath.
Detective Vincent La Marca (Robert De Niro) has a history of crime in his family. His father was executed for the kidnapping and murder of a baby (it suffocated on a blanket in the backseat of the senior La Marca’s car) when Vincent was a boy. La Marca was raised by the cop who arrested his father and grew up to become one of New York’s finest. He’s a good cop, but his personal life is shrouded in secrecy—for good reason—as we learn from his conversations with his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand), which ultimately don’t add up to much. It’s all about to change when La Marca is called in to investigate the killing of a drug dealer from Long Beach, La Marca’s old home. The body has about $4,000 on it, so La Marca decides the killing was over drugs. The investigation comes across a stroke of luck when an informant comes to the station and tells who the killer is: a kid named Joey "Nova" (James Franco). "Nova" comes from the fact that he drives a Chevy Nova, but once the police run a trace on Nova’s car, they learn his true identity: Joseph La Marca—Vincent’s estranged son.
The audience is aware of the circumstances of the killing before La Marca, as the first part of the film focus on Joey’s unsavory life. Almost immediately afterward, the film shifts attention to La Marca and the investigation. From the moment he steps into Long Beach, we’re aware of the general thematic thrust of the story. This is a film about loneliness and a longing for a past innocence. La Marca laments the changes of Long Beach; he remembers the way it used to be—when a man could and La Marca did raise a family there. The camera lingers on its locales, shot with a luminescent glow that hints at a past glory (there’s a certain pathos that a movie dealing with such themes in such a way would contain a single, elongated shot of the two World Trade Center towers in the nighttime rain). There is of course an irony to La Marca’s situation; he chose to leave Long Beach and his family, in a way instigating the ruin of both (at least in his own mind). So why did La Marca leave? Was it the escalating trouble with his ex-wife Maggie (Patti LuPone)? Was it the sudden responsibility of being a father? Or was it the fear of a family’s curse? Add to this: is the curse real or merely self-fulfilling prophecy?
The first questions are for La Marca to know, and when it comes down to it, the answers probably cannot be put into words. The other question has been pondered on for ages. What is clear, though, is that the actors here have a genuine understanding of the material and its subtext. At first, it seems as though the characters will simply be tools of the plot, but soon enough, we’re allowed to get to know them. Robert De Niro shows why he is one of the best and most reliable actors working today. He puts everything right there for us on the screen. There’s a scene near the end of the movie where he must deliver this intense monologue during a police standoff—the kind of scenario that would shatter almost any possibility of becoming involved with the performer—and he still makes us care. He’s that good of an actor. James Franco undergoes a complete transformation as Joey, and he does it in an unaffected James Dean sort of way (he played the Method man in a television biopic). Frances McDormand’s character seems to be present only for conflict near the beginning, but as soon as La Marca opens up, she’s there to listen.
Eventually, though, the girlfriend becomes a reason for conflict again, and in this and other similar instances is where City by the Sea begins to lose us. As much as we sympathize with these characters, there’s always an element of obvious fiction waiting to spring up and take us out of the experience. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t work. There’s a lot going on here that most cop thrillers wouldn’t dream of taking the time to deal with. I liked those elements of the film so much, that I simply wanted more. I guess what we have is good enough for now.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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