Vincent LaMarca, a King Midas in reverse, lives his life as though he were a smudge. The people in his life tend to talk at him rather than with him, and he takes the abuse with a look of indifference. When asked to make a choice, indecision is his security blanket. He’s so passive that it’s hard to believe he’s a decorated New York cop.

But maybe Vincent prefers that neutrality against the alternative. In a past that includes a bitter divorce, Vincent has manifested the violence that runs in his family. This might be his deepest fear, but the last thing he’d do is talk to someone about it.

His waistline paunchy, his hair a messy tangle, his face a road map of despair, Vincent is the satellite around which the predictable story in City by the Sea orbits. But the film never feels as tired as it could, thanks to an uncommonly alive performance from Robert De Niro as Vincent.

For roughly the last 10 years, De Niro has mostly coasted on momentum generated from his career-defining roles in the 1970s and 1980s. There are a handful of passable performances in there, but they’re usually ladled with his trademark hubris. Not since Heat has he played a character with such subtly developed vulnerability. In the same vein as Jack Nicholson’s work in The Pledge or Al Pacino’s in Insomnia, we watch an esteemed actor discovering new nuances. In turn, it’s a sublime reminder of the qualities that made De Niro great, not a gimmick.

Other than providing an inspirational acting spark for De Niro, the particulars of City by the Sea’s story are not so special. Vincent is investigating the murder of a drug dealer when he learns his estranged, drug-addicted son Joey (James Franco) is definitely the man responsible. Naturally, Vincent is tossed from the official investigation, but the case lingers for him in other ways. Vincent’s father was executed for child murder, and he fears that Joey will fall into the same trap of violence. As Vincent grapples with familial problems of old, he must find a way to bring Joey in safely.

The plot is lifted straight from a Lifetime Movie of the Week, and some hokey dialogue and situations in Ken Hixon’s screenplay remind us of that all too frequently. A first-act confrontation between a hopped-up Joey and his mother (Patti LuPone) is so clichéd, it’s embarrassing, and the portrayal of the media in the film redefines the notion of one-dimensional characters.

Plus, we’re burdened with watching good actors in their usual, stock supporting roles. The bearish George Dzundza plays yet another cop partner, and William Forsythe delivers his umpteenth performance as an evil, dope-peddling biker (although he gets in one priceless moment of menace). As Vincent’s sort-of girlfriend, Frances McDormand has some lively moments, but is underused.

Also, with his portrayal of James Dean in a TNT biography, Franco proved he’s an actor from whom to expect great things. Sadly, we don’t get them here. He unwisely rehashes the mealy-mouthed mimic that he used for Dean and strains in his many scenes of whining. Joey’s angst seems more hip and trendy than genuine, and for that reason, it’s hard to care what landing in the clink would mean for him.

But we do care about what it would mean for Vincent, thanks to De Niro. The script and supporting characters are the problem, but De Niro’s honest, quietly restrained performance is the solution. In scene after scene, De Niro plays every one of Vincent’s actions with a quiet desperation, and we long for him to make one true choice, any choice. When he does, it’s naturally accompanied by fiery rhetoric. But it works here because it’s representative of Vincent’s arc toward self-confidence, not a standard one-liner.

These days, directors probably are afraid of telling De Niro to do anything but his usual shtick. It’s unknown whether it happened this time around, but director Michael Caton-Jones has a knack for pulling great stuff from De Niro. The two last teamed on 1993’s This Boy’s Life.

Despite being bathed in sepia sunlight, the film’s ending is also surprisingly bleak. The debris scattered from the choices Vincent and Joey make is messy and uncomplicated. The torture of not knowing what the future holds for the LaMarca family might be more torturous for Vincent to bear than the knowledge of its past. For the first time in ages, De Niro has given us a character we’ll think about after the credits are finished.