City by the Sea is the bold movie whose premise is one that almost every mainstream director stays clear of. Michael Caton-Jones, takes a typical story about a cop with a troubled family, and tells the tale from a perspective that can actually happen in real life. Whether you like it or not, the world doesnít always fall into place. And in City by the Sea, that fact will appear clear as crystal.
Robert De Niro is Detective Vincent La Marca, a once lost soul, who decided to become a cop after following the steps of the man who arrested his father for murdering a child. On top of that, his son, Joey (James Franco) is wanted for murder.
Franco brilliantly portraits a young teen with a planned destination but nowhere to go. At the beginning of the movie, we find him wandering a deserted beach trying to pawn off his guitar for traveling money. Heís a druggie, who spends every dime he earns on narcotics. He manages to go from a high school athlete, to a teen living off the streets in accumulated debt. We see one his tripping episodes, and the spiral he falls through. He knifes a drug dealer after a trade went sour, and found himself in a more desperate situation falling deeper into despair. His father and partner, Reg (George Dzundza) are assigned to the case. Soon enough, Le Marca finds out that the main suspect of the murder is his son.
As the movie progresses, we are introduced to other characters, and another crime happens, mounting more evidence against Joey. I wonít tell you what exactly happens, but questionable variables gives Le Marca a reason to somewhat believe his son when they confront each other, as Joey pleads for his father to believe that he is innocent.
La Marca lives the life that can be described as anything but glamorous. He divorced his wife when his son was only 14, often the excuse given by his ex-wife for why Joey chose life that he did. He has an on and off affair with the women who lives downstairs, and temporarily takes in the girl who dated his son. Gina, (Eliza Dushku) is yet another vibrant character that is so important to the completion of the movie. She lives in a dirty apartment looking to get clean. She is a mess, but a good character who looked out for Joey.
One of the most moving scenes involved the breakdown of a child who lost her father to a shooting. In most movies, if a character isnít the main one, he is just a number when he dies. Here, even the people that seem insignificant, tie into the plot as much as everyone else.
I wonít lie, there are clichťs. When La Marca becomes so fed up with the force, he can only do the one thing all movie cops do; slam his badge and gun on Captainís desk and walk out in dramatic fashion. The Captain himself is also the typical evil figure who puts his agenda ahead of everything else. There is a scene where Captain Henderson (John Doman) is briefing his men on how to capture their man, when one of the detectives bursts into the room claiming to have evidence someone else may be responsible. Henderson quickly turns the findings into an OJ Simpson joke and dismisses the young detective without giving it a look. And Iím sure there have been characters in movies before that were once popular athletes that ended up at the bottom of the barrel.
I can see where all the negative reviews came from. City by the Sea isnít your Hollywood feel good movie. When the credits first start to roll at the end of the movie, there is no afterward; no paragraphs of long text and subscripts explaining the outcome of every character. For many people, a break-up scene isnít closure. They most embrace, and at the very worst, promise to at least stay friends. For once, I smiled in a sense that City by the Sea, in all of itís depressing glory, is a remarkable sense of originality despite several scenes of hackneyed drama.
The pace is a little slow, but the story isnít found in the action, but within the characters. I canít remember the last time I saw a movie that put so much emphasis into every character. How they deal with their complex lives can be a movie in its own. Elements of trust and confidentiality are explored, dividing the line between those that believe in the son, and those that are out to kill him.
The confused expressions I observed of some of the other audience members, was enough proof for me to conclude that moviegoers today, want everything to be neatly packed and left on the table for when they leave. You canít expect all relationships to be happily resolved, all characters who run away to return, and a courtroom scene as the setting for a standing ovation after a character delivers a heartwarming soliloquy. Sorry Jack. Caton-Jones actually lets you think a little, and allows you to set your own boundaries. Many questions youíll have by the end of the movie must be answered all by yourself. If you donít like not knowing everything when you walk out, stay away from City by the Sea.
The overall gritty production in an addition to a gloomy mood leaves little room for laughter and comedy. While there are a few, shall I say, funny scenes, like when La Marca decides to reveal his entire family history to his girlfriend all at the same time. For the most part, City by the Sea is a thriller, itís a drama. Itís a movie based upon a relationship between father and son taken to entirely new level.