NYPD detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) faces a moral quandary when it appears the one responsible for the stabbing death of a drug dealer is none other than his estranged, junkie son (James Franco). Director Michael Caton-Jones and screenwriter Ken Hixon cannot be accused of not being ambitious, for they attempt to add more complexity to this scenario. The killing is apparently only the latest incident in a family legacy of violence LaMarca’s own father was executed for killing a child years ago; LaMarca, while distancing from his father’s actions through his profession, has himself once succumbed to a violent urge.
Despite fine work by DeNiro and Franco, who both create sympathetic, three-dimensional characters, “City by the Sea”‘s aspirations for depth remain just that, and the film ends up as shallow as the thankless love interest role Frances McDormand somehow agreed to play here. There are more than a few overt concessions to formula, such as the partner with “lunchmeat” practically tattooed on his forehead, but worst of all is how, after taking its time to establish the main characters, their relationship, and that dark family history, the resolution is rushed, contrived and ridiculously tidy, as if Hixon and Caton-Jones were under pressure to make a deadline. The saccharine conclusion would be problematic in any film, but given how much talent is involved, it’s especially disappointing here.