(R) 3 stars As with most films based on real stories, City by the Sea alters the facts. What"s amazing, and frightening, is that in this case, the real story is even more dramatic and grimmer than what appears onscreen. Based on the 1997 Esquire article "Mark of a Murderer" by Mike McAlary, the movie follows a police officer trapped between nightmares. New York City homicide detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is a dedicated civil servant surrounded by ghosts. When he was a child, his financially strapped father Angelo kidnapped a baby from a wealthy family to collect a ransom. The infant died while in his possession and, convicted of murder, Angelo went to the electric chair when Vincent was 8. Left with that legacy, Vincent grew up estranged from virtually everyone. He assaulted his wife, Margaret (Patti LuPone), during a particularly ugly argument and she divorced him, taking his son Joey with her. While remaining focused on work, Vincent gave up on his personal life and lost contact with his boy. When the film begins, Vincent has but one non-work relationship, with Michelle (Frances McDormand), his downstairs neighbor. Michelle is his girlfriend, but the relationship is determinably casual. Then it happens. The body of a murdered drug dealer washes up on the beach. The investigation soon reveals that the crime was actually committed in Long Beach, Long Island, Vincent"s home turf. And the chief suspect in the crime is Joey (James Franco), his grown-up, drug-addicted son. Now Vincent must deal with his boy in an entirely new way, even as tabloid headlines speculate about the possibility of a "murder gene." The screenplay makes major departures from fact. In reality, Vincent was retired when his son was accused of murder. And the kid, depicted here as innocent, was stone, cold guilty in real life. Surprisingly, the changes do not hurt the film, because the focus remains firmly on Vincent and his private nightmare. As should come as no surprise, the performances are top-notch. De Niro maintains a stone face as the emotionally stunted lawman while conveying the vast array of feelings beneath his surface. James Franco, who played James Dean in the recent TV movie, is appropriately ravaged and desperate as the boy. And thank goodness for Frances McDormand, whose unsentimental, but bright performance as Vincent"s girlfriend is a ray of sunshine in all the gloominess. Dour and downbeat, the film mirrors the mindset of Vincent, which works for and against the production. I admired the integrity of the tone, but could certainly understand why others might opt not to dip their toes in these chilly waters.
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