The Good: Honesty, Acting, Character, Well-developed and presented plot
The Bad: Moments of pacing inconsistencies
The Basics: In one of the best crime dramas in years, a father hunts a son who is accused of murder in City By The Sea.
Sometimes a film comes along that takes us by surprise, usually one we haven't heard so much about because so few people saw it or it didn't do so well at the box office. City By The Sea was one of those films for me. I had heard generally good reviews about it, but I was only going to see it because the library got it in on DVD and I could see it for free. In retrospect, I would have been just as happy buying this one.
When Joey Nova is looking to score, he takes his habit to Snake and Picasso. When Snake can't pay Picasso, a knife fight ensues and Joey kills Picasso largely in self defense. Snake pins the murder on Joey and a manhunt ensues. Leading the hunt is Vincent La Marca. La Marca is Joey's dad and a man of many issues, not the least of which is having abandoned Joseph at a young age. When Spyder, Picasso's boss, begins hunting Joey, he kills Vincent's partner and Joey is implicated for that crime as well. In a series of chases and encounters, Vincent is brought closer and closer to his son and does everything he can to bring him in alive.
The reason City By The Sea is so great is there are complicated characters dealing with a complex series of variables. There are no simple answers here. And there aren't supposed to be. It makes the film feel very real. Indeed, the film contained in its lines, a fact I had never been exposed to: it's easier to kill the second time. I did not know that before yesterday when I saw City By The Sea. It makes a lot of sense, though.
The characters are intriguing and they keep focus on them throughout the film. Vincent is compelling because he has many layers and they are not all nice. He is soft-spoken and seems decent, but he walked out on his son and he once hit his ex-wife. He is protective of his downstairs neighbor, who he has a relationship with, but he has not even told Michelle that Joey exists. Indeed, at some point in the past, he outright lied about having children. And Michelle is an interesting character of her own.
Joey is intriguing as well. He's a junkie with a grandfather who was executed and a father who is a police officer. He was once a star basketball player and he's now depressed and upset. He had a relationship with Gina, who has his son and leaves him with Vincent and Michelle. Joey is desperate and in the process of the film, his lies about getting clean at the opening become truths of necessity. We feel that Joey is a young man who is continually betrayed and as people move in on him, we begin to understand his mindset.
The acting is exceptional in City By The Sea and it's worth it for that alone. The lesser characters are all distinctive and well-acted. Eliza Dushku is convincing as a young woman fighting an addiction while trying to raise a kid. She plays Gina with fear, hurt and strength that is sapped out of her with each passing minute on camera. It works wonderfully. Similarly, Frances McDormand is great in her too-brief role as Michelle. She is soft-spoken and contemplative. She captivates as Michelle with presence that draws the eye and forces us to listen to her.
The back of the DVD box has a review that notes that Robert De Niro is acting in City By The Sea in a way that we've never seen before. That reviewer pegged it quite right; here De Niro is soft-spoken, but not particularly cunning, honorable, but practical. As a result, he realistically portrays a down to earth man with quite a bit of love and the idea that people are responsible for their actions. And that's a theme of City By The Sea, people make choices and they bear the responsibility for those decisions. But De Niro here is not quite like any De Niro you've seen before and it's wonderful.
James Franco, however, is the truly great actor here. He has a face that can be lit to make him look strung out like a junkie and his acting is amazing. Neglected in Spider-man (reviewed here!), Franco is a powerhouse of body language and facial expressions and use of voice. Much of his performance is quiet and desperate, the rest filled with fear or horror. Franco does an excellent job of creating a character we may believe has the right fundamentals but made a wrong turn somewhere.
City By The Sea has a strong sense of responsibility that is incredibly refreshing for films today. Add to that, the acting is wonderful and the plot is intriguing. Unfortunately, the pacing is a little slow, especially in the first half. Nevertheless, it is accessible to any adult who is sick of the usual crime drama and wants something special.
For other films with Robert De Niro, please check out:
The Deer Hunter
The Godfather, Part II
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© 2011, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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