I watched The Good Shepherd (2006) and City by the Sea (2002) back-to-back--but not really: They did not, if you will excuse the silly imagery, turn from each other, back facing back, sulking from some small tiff; or simply tired, ready to dream their own dreams. No, I think they lay beside one another, looking up, talking quietly in the dark. I was almost intruding, but, to reference another De Niro performance, I heard things:
Both Matt Damon's Edward Wilson and De Niro's Vincent LaMarca, responding to the lung-filling conflux of their lives and their jobs, dark, oily waters merging, sink into silence, settle into immobility. Edward builds CIA counter-intelligence with decades of whispered conversations behind closing doors, poker-faced--that is, the same face, to enemy and friend, wife, lover, and son--as his breath gets shorter and his resolve inscrutable. And Damon does have a good face for this, one you want to see smiling, relaxing; almost a movie star's face because it approaches charm. And this is why he makes an attractive up-and-comer, the eager kid you wish would ease up on himself and enjoy the arrival of his success; I'm thinking of Good Will Hunting (1997). But it's also Tom Ripley's talented face, the boy who grins at you, brushing away the wingless flies he's been torturing just as you walk in. In The Good Shepherd he drowns almost immediately--rising a few times as he considers whom he might love, and there is that smile again, perhaps real, but always being drawn down. Near the end of the movie, someone asks Edward a question. As he looks back, silent, in her frustration my wife muttered, "If he doesn't answer that question ... ." And of course he doesn't. I was going to write, "Because at that point it's too late," but, once he wipes away his girlish makeup--the "poor little buttercup" at Yale--it's Skull and Bones, and cold logic, and proprietary attitudes, until everyone, including the women he professes to love, and the son he says he'll protect, drowns with him. It seemed too late for him from the start.
Vincent DeMarca in City by the Sea has also withdrawn his offer, so to speak, to wife and lover, and especially son. In his attempt to protect his own damaged self, he lowers his head and averts his eyes, becoming the good cop, but the silent partner. His junkie son, Joey (James Franco), falls almost all the way down, his "shirt-tail muddy, his hands a little bloody," and Vincent moves toward him, but so tentatively, so slowly, that it all but guarantees he will remain untouched--although not unmoved; like Edward Wilson, DeMarca knows he is drowning, and taking others down with him--but he is too afraid of the past to change the things in front of him. De Niro gives us a character who is also almost likable; but he is no Edward Wilson, cooly inventing a self. DeMarca seems willing to emerge, but it takes mighty efforts from everyone around him, generations of them--father's ghost, ex-wife, almost-girlfriend (an admiring bow to Frances McDormand), lost son, abandoned grandson--to grab him by the nape and pull him from the flood.
As the director of The Good Shepherd and the lead in City by the Sea, De Niro lets us hear the sound of footsteps receding, down to the water's edge. I'm glad I watched the cop movie second, if only to be left with lessons in resuscitation rather than the dimming face wavering and dying. Both films, though, "speak of something that is gone," although City by the Sea finds "strength in what remains behind."*
*I can't help it, but Wordsworth sticks in my head like an exceptionally subtle jingle, always compelling me to buy buy buy those intimations of immortality through recollections of early childhood. Sheesh.
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