Silver Screen: Blue Valentine ****
Blue Valentine is the story of the short life of a marriage. Second-time feature director and sometimes-documentarian Derek Cianfrance approaches the material with a naturalist's eye for subtle, significant detail, and confines his characters to explore the vastness within them. The result is a film that's intensely intimate and often very difficult to watch. It's also one of the best movies of 2010.
Cianfrance, an improbably controlled and savvy filmmaker considering his relative youth and inexperience, allows himself a single instance of trickery in a narrative otherwise stripped of cinematic flourish: The action is split into two parallel timelines, one taking place over the course of several months leading up to a couple's wedding, the other playing out over the two days in which the marriage is ended.
Our husband is Dean (Ryan Gosling), an unambitious housepainter who contentedly drinks his way through the work day. He's fulfilled by his duties as husband and father to his young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). His wife, Cindy (Michelle Williams), works as a nurse for an obstetrician who's pressuring her to follow him when he relocates his practice.
This is just one of the myriad unresolved issues between the emotionally estranged couple. Sensing the approach of some kind of crisis point, the blindly optimistic Dean makes a reservation for the two at a shoddy novelty hotel that bills itself as a romantic getaway with themed rooms. It's in this room that the final night of their marriage will play out.
Watching Blue Valentine is like being held down and repeatedly punched in the emotions. When a movie opens with the death of a family dog, it's going to be sad; when that's the happiest the characters will be throughout the duration of the film, it's Blue Valentine. It's an ideal last date movie.
But it's not an aimlessly depressing movie, and Cianfrance and cowriters Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis don't wallow in pathos. It's heavy subject matter, well-handled, devastating not because the filmmakers pile tragedies onto the audience but because the observations ring true and the entire production is so efficiently executed. The only moment that rings false is a cheeky, overplayed joke-- following yet another scene of a protracted fight, the action cuts back to a flashback of a much happier incarnation of the couple running down the street, and among the items loaded in Gosling's full arms is a sign that reads "Is This You?" The sign reappears in the closing credits-- yeah, Cianfrance, we get it.
Blue Valentine is a significantly performance-driven film, and both actors are exceptional. Williams is beautiful, and she wields her looks like a weapon-- but not in the manner of a femme fatale or seductress, vamping and teasing. Rather, she does the opposite, freezing her face into a repressed pout and dimming the light in her eyes. The effect is that her pale hair and round face become as distant and cold as the far side of the moon. Her performance is powerful but tightly controlled, based not on projection but withholding. It's a brutal counterpoint to Gosling's chatty, eager-to-please Dean, who has physically deteriorated-- Gosling is wrapped in paunch and sporting a hairline receding like a sunset-- but it's clear that it's Cindy who has changed. But Dean's consistency is also a kind of arrested development, and thus he's more easily cast as a victim.
But there are no villains here. Even Cindy's abusive father (The Wire's John Doman), so ferocious in the flashbacks, is seen in present day as a tired old man lugging an oxygen tank, palsied with regret. He's a grim prediction of the future for both characters, who seem doomed by choices they sometimes never even knew they were making.