As the new Robert De Niro film demonstrates, even so ostensibly simple and relatively ancient a form (at least for the cinema) as the cop flick, even in the blockbuster blossom time, possesses the potential to be more than mysteries, manhunts, and shootouts. Based on a true story, City by the Sea examines not only the details of a particular police investigation in its present time frame, but also another crime in the past. Moreover, the picture employs its subjects of crime and detection not to solve some puzzle or show some police heroics, but to deal with the heavy burdens of guilt and negotiate the tangled wilderness of family relationships.
The movie introduces its title location with smeary old films of a beach resort, accompanied by some schmaltzy old songs, all ironically intended to show the difference between past and present Long Beach, Long Island. The prosperous seaside community of resort hotels and beach clubs (which I remember well from my youth) has apparently fallen on evil times. Its decayed boardwalk now represents only the memories of leisurely strolls in the sunshine, the enclosure for its carousel now echoes only with the wind swirling through its shattered windows, while the once crowded beach is populated only by seagulls. The City by the Sea has become a slum, and its population appears to consist entirely of junkies and their suppliers.
When a New York City detective named Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) investigates the murder of a drug dealer known as Picasso (so named, perhaps, for the picturesque tattoos adorning his face); the case leads him back to Long Beach, his old hometown. He had left the place many years before, after a bitter and angry divorce, abandoning his son Joey (James Franco), now a grown man and a stone junkie. Involved in a drug buy that turned first violent, then fatal, Joey is also the primary suspect in Picasso's death.
Because of his personal involvement in the case, and a special history that engages the attention of the media, LaMarca's superiors remove him from the investigation. His partner, Reg, takes over; and when another drug dealer shoots Reg, Joey gets the blame. LaMarca, fully aware of how his colleagues deal with cop killers, desperately attempts to bring his son in before the police find him. His pursuit of Joey leads through numerous difficulties to a climactic confrontation with his own childhood, his own sense of filial connection, his own sad family life.
The story explores the meaning of a background that LaMarca has been trying to deny and forget ever since he left the City by the Sea. He is the victim of his own life, his own past, suffering from a confusion of guilt and shame over the deeds of his father, Angelo LaMarca, who was executed for a notorious crime when Vincent was only a child --- the bungled kidnaping of an infant whom Angelo more or less accidentally killed. The notion of the sins of the father blighting the lives of his children and their children --- a concept right out of Greek tragedy --- amazingly, actually worked itself out in Vincent LaMarca's life, which shows, perhaps, that those Greeks knew a thing or two about human nature and the terrible potential of guilt.
LaMarca's attempts to forget his past seem almost comical at times, especially when his steady girlfriend, Michelle (Frances McDormand), learns all at once that he was married before, has a son and a grandson, and that his father was executed. Coming to terms with Joey forces him to confront his painful childhood as the son of a murderer, his own history of abandonment and alienation, his failures as a father. Searching for his son, returning to Long Beach, forces him to return to a time and place he's been trying to escape for most of his adult life. In the search, he finally comes to understand something of his own failures and to acknowledge his own guilt.
Unlike most cop flicks, City by the Sea chiefly works and succeeds through character and atmosphere, with the squalid decay of the location providing its moral and emotional center. (If the Long Beach of today really looks like the place in the movie, the city fathers should either apologize or sue). Both literally and metaphorically, the picture begins and ends there, in the wreckage of holiday dreams and the failures of hope and innocence. There, coming to terms with his son and himself, LaMarca, who constantly talks about choosing one's course in life, learns another sort of choice: how to forgive his son, himself, and perhaps even his own father.
In City by the Sea, De Niro --- who probably works in too many movies these days, and has played so many cops he should be commissioner by now --- displays the talent, skill, and dedication that long ago established him as one of the finest actors of his generation. He makes his character into a fully credible human being who lives a consciously drab and controlled life and, despite the inherent melodrama of the film, speaks and behaves in a deceptively ordinary manner. De Niro establishes a remarkable presence, and the reality he creates does justice to the pain and truth of Vincent LaMarca's story.
City by the Sea, starring Robert De Niro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, George Dzundza, Patti Lupone, Anson Mount, Brian Tarantina, John Doman, Nestor Serrano, Cyrus Farmer, Jay Boryea; based on the article "Mark of a Murderer," by Michael McAlary; screenplay by Ken Hixon; directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.