Michael Caton-Jones's City By the Sea has the markings of a film that "could have been," but despite creative obstacles, Caton-Jones rallies his cast—including award-winners Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, and James Franco—and crew in service of a surprisingly gripping story.
Ken Hixon's script, presumably at studio behest, considerably reshapes the true story which inspired it (chronicled in Pulitzer prize-winner Mike McAlary's Esquire article "Mark of a Murderer"). But Caton-Jones, De Niro, and Franco retain the essential emotional truth of this tale of familial legacy. De Niro plays Vincent LaMarca, a New York policeman of retirement age who trudges on—at work and at home with his downstairs-neighbor girlfriend (McDormand)—out of "habit." When LaMarca's son Joey (Franco) becomes the prime suspect in a Long Island murder case, the father's groove is disrupted, and choices must be made.
The hook of the story is undeniably great, but the film plays, at first, like nothing more than a competent policier blessed with an inordinately talented cast. Caton-Jones—who long ago betrayed himself as too tasteful for breakout success—refuses to hype up the story with flashy visuals, propulsive music or insistent editing. Instead, his subdued style suits this story of sturdy piers covering roiling water.