City By The Sea

October, 2002, Thriller

Directed by:Michael Caton-Jones

Starring:Robert De Niro, Eliza Dushku

City by the Sea

Robert De Niro has become an acting icon in American movies. From early work with director Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) to his depiction of Mob gangsters (Godfather II, The Untouchables) to later career success in comedies, (Analyze This, Meet The Parents) De Niro's range and quality make almost anything he appears in worth a trip to the theater. Over 55 films to date and still counting…

But in a body of work that prolific, there have been the occasional clunkers too, (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) along with some performances that can't be more charitably described than pedestrian (The Fan, Men of Honor). As he approaches his 60th birthday, the actor can look back on as many memorable roles as anyone in his generation. What's his secret?

For starters, he's always labored to be a movie actor, not a movie star. Many of his finest roles (Jackie Brown, Cop Land, Brazil) have come in films in which his performance is a relatively minor part and he seems especially comfortable embodying characters that play off other equally strong male leads, (Wag The Dog, Goodfellas, Midnight Run). Because you cannot bring preconceived ideas to the roles he assumes, the integrity of his characters becomes the bedrock of the action that surrounds them. But above all, it's De Niro's gift for conveying the motivations of inarticulate and/or introverted characters that has no equal among his peers.

In City by the Sea, De Niro brings that special gift to the true story of Detective Vincent LaMarca, a New York City cop scrambling to locate his estranged and drug addicted son who's sought by the authorities in connection with the murder of a street dealer. The action takes place in Long Beach, a devastated community on the shore of Long Island where Vincent grew up and suffered the devastation of his own childhood when his father was convicted and executed for the murder of a young baby in a failed kidnapping. The desiccated landscape produced by Long Beach's urban decay provides the perfect visual metaphor for the bleak, failed lives presented here by director Michael Caton-Jones (Memphis Belle, Rob Roy). 

De Niro's flight from his hometown, his marriage and his son form the real storyline of the movie; the conventional plot, (tracing the police search for the killer) while competently presented, isn't especially compelling. It's De Niro's search for himself, his share of responsibility for the failure of his marriage to a bitterly angry ex-wife, (played with acidic perfection by Patti LuPone) and the withholding of real intimacy from his sympathetic girlfriend, (another wonderfully understated performance from Frances McDormand) which drives the story. De Niro's Vincent isn't unaware, but rather unresponsive; the process by which the character resolves his emotional constipation provides De Niro with a wonderful opportunity to explore a fascinating variation on his stock-in trade-inarticulate male. Vincent talks endlessly about his pain without being able to accurately describe or deal with it. Finally, events in his son's life force an unavoidable confrontation between the two, illuminating why Vincent, a decent man who survived awful trauma in his own life, is incapable of preventing it's reoccurrence in his son and the price to be paid for that failure.

Ironically, some reviewers have criticized the movie for its greatest strength-De Niro's portrayal of this emotionally stunted character, whose impenetrability is precisely the film's central point. And credit Caton-Jones for avoiding the typical upbeat Hollywood ending; De Niro's grasp of his problem comes at a terrible price, and his future is both uncertain and laced with the pain of what might have been. City delivers tough message and becomes a decidedly downbeat as a result. But de Niro's anguished yet honorable Vincent is a character audiences haven't seen before, and watching this exceptional actor get under his character's skin is certainly worth the price of admission. 

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