'Blue Valentine': A Romance Raw And Unhinged

Ryan Gosling i i

Dean (Ryan Gosling) is content centering his life around his family; he must reconcile his desires with his wife's ambitious career plans in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co.
Ryan Gosling

Dean (Ryan Gosling) is content centering his life around his family; he must reconcile his desires with his wife's ambitious career plans in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine.

Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co.

Blue Valentine

  • Director: Derek Cianfrance
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Rated R for sex, language and physical violence

With: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

(Recommended)

Gone are the days when filmmakers kept a respectful distance from their characters. In Blue Valentine, writer and director Derek Cianfrance is obsessive in how he uses the hand-held camera to get in his actors' faces. Yet there's something in those faces to see — something momentous, angry, desperate, unmanageable. The film is a rough ride with the shock absorbers removed.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a married couple, Dean and Cindy, with a little daughter named Frankie. Dean paints houses and Cindy is a nurse. The movie's opening is as ominous as any horror film. The family dog is missing. Cindy is strangely cold toward him and fed up. Something bad is clearly coming.

Blue Valentine has a time-warp gimmick. Cianfrance cuts back and forth between what might be the end of this marriage and its bumpy but charming beginning. Now, beginnings and endings are relatively simple to diagram; the true drama is in the unresolved middle zone, when a couple's attraction and repulsion seesaws. Here there's no seesaw — just the see and then the saw. But when we look at the beginning of Cindy and Dean's relationship from the vantage of hindsight, we see things we wouldn't otherwise. The very things that are right about them back then are years later wrong.

It turns out Dean saved Cindy, in a sense. She was stuck in an awful relationship with a local jock and dominated by an abusive father, and Dean was funny and smitten — and, more important, eager to take care of her. In one of the film's high points, they duck into the doorway of a closed store, and Dean induces Cindy, with much prodding, to tap dance while he plays a guitar and warbles like Tiny Tim: Her surrender is infectious and enchanting.

It's only from the perspective of the future that we detect a compulsive, even scary quality in Dean's jokiness. Cianfrance cuts to years later, when Dean hopes to rekindle the marriage and books the couple into a gimmicky theme motel, where they're ensconced in the blue-lit "Future Room" that seems suitable only for android mating. Too much cheap vodka adds to the non-fun. Finally, Cindy comes out with what's been eating her up — that Dean is going nowhere.

"I'd like to see you have a job where you don't have to start drinking at 8 in the morning to go to it," she says.

"No, I have a job that I can drink at 8 in the morning," he replies. "What a luxury, you know? I get off of work. I have a beer. I go to work. I paint somebody's house. They're excited about it. I come home. I get to be with you. What's — like, this is the dream."

That's not too promising ... and Gosling's Dean becomes increasingly unhinged. He jabbers at her instead of engaging; as she withdraws, he seems on the verge of snapping. Gradually, Dean loses stature, while Cindy, a killjoy in the early scenes, becomes the movie's true protagonist.

Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine i i

In flashbacks, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are shown in happier, more enchanting times.  Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co.
Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine

In flashbacks, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are shown in happier, more enchanting times. 

Davi Russo/The Weinstein Co.

I frankly found it hard to watch Williams without thinking about her breakup with Heath Ledger, the father of her child, and the impact of his subsequent death. That's not a problem, though — if anything, it makes her seem more vulnerable. She has always been a raw, see-through actress, and under the camera's tight scrutiny, her emotions seem more seismic than ever — even when her face is still. We sense the strain that comes with Cindy's self-protection. She holds it in and holds it in until she can't anymore.

Some critics have found Blue Valentine monotonous, the same note hit again and again. I don't entirely disagree, although I think that its oppressive monotony evokes the dissolution of a marriage shockingly well. There's another major figure on whom to focus: the little girl Frankie. Faith Wladyka is an unusually convincing child actress, and her playful rapport with Gosling's Dean makes you like him despite his demons. The child is the movie's truest casualty — and the one whose future relationships will doubtless be colored by what happens to her parents' marriage. In Blue Valentine, the bad vibes just keep rippling.

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