City by the Sea

(Michael Caton-Jones, USA, 2002)


Hollywood loves stories of fathers and sons, whether the accent is on generational conflict or humanist reconciliation. And, more recently, it has become enamoured of instant fatherhood tales in which a carefree man is suddenly saddled with a child whom he must learn to love and care for.

City by the Sea surely hits a record in laying out its father-son problems over no less than four generations. The father of Vincent (Robert De Niro) was a convict responsible for the death of a child. So Vincent, in opposition, has become a righteous, law-abiding, highly decorated cop. But now the dissolute son he abandoned long ago, Joey (James Franco), is the chief suspect in a murder case. And then there’s the grandson Vincent never knew he had, whom he now has to look after .

It is easy to recount this film – adapted and simplified from a true-life case – in a way that stresses its predictable, schematic, overly conventional aspects. But director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy’s Life [1993]) finds a mood and a tone that work.

Ken Hixon’s script mercifully skips the sensational journalistic tag that brought the real-life case its media attention – namely, the possibility of a "murder gene" in the male bloodline. Here – as father and son alike battle their tendencies towards aggression and emotional withdrawal – the focus is on questions of moral responsibility and the degree to which individuals are free to choose their destiny.

The film weaves an elegant series of contrasts and comparisons between its many deftly sketched characters. For instance, Vincent’s lover, Michelle (Frances McDormand), is no doormat or automatic nurturer. Like a tough cookie from a John Sayles movie, she balances her own need to protect herself in intimate relationships with her desire to thaw Vincent’s defensive exterior and help him reconnect his family ties. McDormand is wonderful in this part.

Much of the appeal of this story is a result of its setting, the faded Long Island resort of Long Beach (the film begins with archival footage of its heyday as the "city by the sea"). Its atmosphere expresses well the melancholy of the characters and their burdens of unfinished business. John Murphy’s delicate score also enhances this feeling.

City by the Sea is a modest but accomplished and surprisingly compelling film. De Niro may never again find a director to match Martin Scorsese, but his ongoing collaboration with Caton-Jones results in fine work that resembles his own directorial effort, A Bronx Tale (1993): understated, solidly constructed, focused on complexities of character and the spirit of particular social environments.

MORE Caton-Jones: The Jackal

© Adrian Martin February 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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