The directorial debut of acting coach Harold Guskin, sparse drama Down the Shore exists as a peculiar little endeavour; not only because it both succeeds and fails on many of the same idiosyncrasies but also that some of its most maddening attributes, especially in terms of pacing, sometimes pay off in delicate ways. It’s ultimately dedicated performances from veterans and newcomers alike that make the messy material worthwhile as well as the (purposely) dour aesthetics that add a welcomingly-oppressive bleakness.
It’s more than safe to say that Down the Shore will not be to everyone’s tastes, and for extended instances such was the case for me. There are times when quite literally nothing is transpiring and certainly times where the plot is not being furthered or characters being developed more deeply. In most occasions, it would have been an agreeable way to illustrate reflection and let the drama and secrets at play brew, but for a film so sluggish at its core, such cases merely serve to further prolong.
While I wouldn’t say Down the Shore is a depressing film, it is certainly smothered by dreariness and populated by lost souls looking for some sort of salvation that is not even close to their grasp. This sombre nature is complimented by gaunt visuals courtesy of the Jersey Shore circa very early spring and most importantly a shuttered theme park that serves as the collective livelihoods of these characters. When stripped of lights and the laughs of children, this often love-filled place is just as skeletal as those who tend to it.
James Gandolfini anchors the proceedings as Bailey, the mechanic and operator at the amusement park, who finds out he has lost her sister to cancer after taking off without a word to France. His employer, Wiley (Joseph Pope), is a childhood friend and married to his former flame Mary (Famke Janssen) to whom he still holds ample affection. Already living without much purpose or any true happiness, Bailey’s life is changed unequivocally when a charming Frenchman named Jacques (Eduardo Costa) shows up with his sister’s ashes, the proclamation he was her husband, a deed for half his home and the promise of his parted kin that he can seek employment at the park. However, this is only the beginning of what will uncover a deep-seeded secret between these three lifelong friends.
All of these principal actors do solid work, even though they are bestowed with roles that either provide little in the way of a full arc or are simply thankless in how they must fester in such unpleasant circumstances. One may suggest that the mostly-lacking catharses are intentional and that this slice of Jersey is a prison that isn’t meant to provide any salvation. But when the central premise is presented as that a secret is brewing which can shatter many lives, a cleansing of sorts needs to be on the table.
Gandolfini, always strong, strikes a sturdy equilibrium between depressed introvert, hopeful romantic and caring friend and it’s safe to say there isn’t a hint of Tony Soprano on display. Though never destined for an Oscar, Famke Janssen also turns in a capable and usually sympathetic portrayal of the deeply unhappy Mary and certainly proves she can bring more to the table than having to be rescued by Liam Neeson. Eduardo Costa’s character appears like a bit of an apparition (and continues to be a perplexing enigma throughout concerning his agenda and motives) though he provides an enduring antithesis to most of the personalities on display.
The enigmatic nature of the Jacques character like so many things in Down the Shore is somehow more interesting than it should be, but also maddening in more ways than not. His sudden arrival in New Jersey with a plan to move into the home of his “brother in law,” that he has never met, is way out of the blue and any initial coldness is resolved with a few scenes of Wiley yelling at him for being a nuisance. Likewise, this outsider serves a key role in the unfurling of the aforementioned secret, but in some of the least organic ways imaginable. On three separate occasions, three different characters disclose this unrevealed truth after 30 years of silence. Why we should believe at two of these junctures Jacques would be the recipient of hushed words is beyond my comprehension other than to say it’s simply misguided screenwriting.
Even more infuriating in Down the Shore is the fact that this oh-so-integral secret ultimately has almost no barring – no ramifications – in the end, only that it was supposed to have shaped these individuals in some way. When the past is delved into and long-dormant atrocities approached it adds only a clear cut back-story for these characters, and not anything complex in the sense as to what has shaped them from that event to the present. We needed more than the simple reveal of this truth to develop certain motivations and explain why they have become the way they are.
Albeit exasperating and often listlessly staged, Down the Shore is just worthy of a recommendation for the way it presents this isolated vision of pseudo-hell and for the actors who throw themselves into the glum personalities of their characters. A film to approach with trepidation and perhaps even preparation, Guskin’s vision is at the very least consistent if not subtly intriguing.
In terms of pace, Down the Shore walks a very narrow line between deliberate and utterly languid, but there are just enough strong performances and intriguing (if messy) dynamics to make it work.