Jack Darnell’s review published on Letterboxd:
It’s funny how the places that receive the most transit end up being the loneliest locations in the world; how we often feel more isolated when surrounded by others. The plot of this film takes place in the titular city’s port, a place where people are constantly coming and going almost at a faster rate than the tide itself. No one has any ties or any care. This is a place where marriage is a joke, where love can be bought, and where happiness can be obtained by swimming in a personal sea of alcohol. The only thing that is shallower than the water that flows along the edges of the port are the people who inhabit its docks.
Along the waterfront, only lost souls can be found. Ones with no motives in life nor reasons to justify their own existence. Just as the fog that regularly engulfs them suggests, they’re not coming from any visible location nor can be expected to be headed for one. They choose to drink and fool around to forget their miseries and pain. Here empty promises abound and discussions consist of only hopeless dreams. As the bits of ships that clutter the frame represent, these people are like the wreckage of wash-up boats: only leftover pieces which once constituted a greater whole.
It is here that we find two individuals, both equally lost and lonely. A girl, who can no longer stand this reality and wants freedom to explore a better life, resolves that if she cannot escape maybe death is the only solution. A man, who almost seems to revel in this aimless and hedonistic lifestyle of drifting, but secretly hides the vulnerable interior of a romantic. She is lost at sea, searching for someone to act as lighthouse, guiding her to shore. He is a ship coming into harbor, searching for simply a quick fuel stop to satisfy his sexual desires. As fate would have it, one night their paths cross - an event which will forever change both.
The question is, can this chance encounter save each from the storm they are stuck drifting through. What does she want from him and what is he willing to give to her? Both wish to fly away and escape to find both a rebirth and redemption to each of their lives. But even together will they be able to brave the strong winds of the tempest that surrounds them. What will their luck be when fate rolls the dice, smooth sailing or sinking below the waves? Everyone is looking to move inland and establish a home on sturdy foundations of land, but few ever manage to escape the prison of the port in each of our lives.
Sternberg’s maritime play is perhaps visually the closest to his signature style I’ve so far come across. The atmosphere has a dreamy feel, which is equally homely as it is depressing, and erotic as it is distant. Beautifully lit bars which are full of life and foggy, empty docks littered with debris produce some jaw-dropping shot compositions.
But just as much as his films are stunning from a visual level, I believe that Sternberg’s achievements in obtaining good performances regularly go unsung. This has two incredible leads, each delivering subtle yet precise performances. In the end, they remain the forces that drive this story. Tears that run down Compson’s cheeks prove to be as powerful as a hurricane first making landfall while a small smile from Bancroft can reveal a hidden vulnerability which is as revelatory as discovering the real purpose of the ‘Poop Deck’.
Sternberg has proven himself to be at his best when he is at his most romantic and sympathetic for the characters he’s created. So far, The Docks of New York has come the closest that I’ve seen to achieving that cinematic and thematic vision. Just as the film begins with a boat coming on the tide to port, this film too washed over me with a wave of unexpectedly strong emotion, stunning imagery, and most of all, a beautifully and unforgettable sense of lyricism that seemed to work parallel to the ships which gently bobbed up and down on the surf