Love, from start to finish and back again
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, January 7, 2010
There's a moment in "Blue Valentine" when its searing drama and spontaneous, vagrant beauty come into devastating focus. Michelle Williams, who plays a wife, mother and medical assistant named Cindy, sits alone in a Poconos hotel room while her husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling), knocks on the door to get in. The camera remains motionless, but the audience's attention zooms in as Cindy's agony plays across her face: Worn down by a claustrophobic marriage and too many dreams deferred, she's a woman shocked to find herself at this particular place at this particular time, wondering how the hell she's going to get out.
Williams expresses all of that without saying a word, which testifies to the artistry of writer-director Derek Cianfrance, who with "Blue Valentine" makes an astonishing debut. On paper, the film sounds like a downer: a portrait of a marriage unraveling, even as the couple revisits the happier days of their courtship. But Cianfrance is a filmmaker alive to the rough beauty of even the deepest pain. Like John Cassavetes before him, Cianfrance is a director willing to take his actors - and by extension, the audience - to emotional and even physical extremes, allowing them to create a world on screen that possesses all the volatility and ragged ends of real life. The results can be almost unbearably harrowing but also deeply cathartic, as viewers create their own meanings within Dean and Cindy's singular downward spiral.
It wasn't always this way for the young couple. Although early scenes in which a tense Cindy prepares breakfast for Dean and their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), suggest that life at home hasn't been happy for a while, soon we see Dean's flashback to when he first laid eyes on Cindy - at a nursing home, where she was visiting her grandmother and he was working for a company moving in a resident. Cianfrance uses subtle visual cues to toggle between the promising past and the dead-end present, filming the flashbacks on warm, 16-millimeter film and photographing present-day scenes on chilly digital video.
What was once Dean's charming, footloose approach to life has now paled for Cindy, who harbored bigger ambitions for both of them. At one point she suggests he try to find a job where he doesn't have to drink a beer every morning before going to work; he retorts that he's lucky to have a job where he gets to drink a beer every morning before going work.
Can this marriage be saved? That's the operative question throughout "Blue Valentine," and it's a tribute to Gosling and Williams that they create such recognizable, sympathetic characters that the audience actually cares. Neither emerges as demon nor angel in this story - in fact, filmgoers will want to make sure they save time after the movie to engage in their own armchair therapy session, where Cindy's abusive home life and Dean's self-sabotaging can be plumbed for their myriad implications.
"Blue Valentine" possesses just one awkwardly staged, over-the-top moment, when a character arrives unexpectedly at the other's workplace with explosive results. But that's the only scene that doesn't ring wincingly true in a film that otherwise unfolds with unforced, observant ease, whether in capturing the tremulous, giddy moments of first love or its grim death rattle. For a movie dedicated to life's most melancholy moments of loss and self-deception, "Blue Valentine" is an oddly exhilarating experience, if only to witness two of the screen's finest actors working at the top of their game, to the depth of their souls.
Contains strong sexual content, profanity and a beating.