Woman on the verge

Michelle Williams proves her movie-star mettle in Blue Valentine

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FILM Sometimes a performance stands out and grabs attention for embodying a particular personality type or emotional state that's instantly familiar yet infrequently explored in much depth at the movies. What's most striking about Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine is the primary focus it lends Michelle Williams' role as the more disgruntled half of a marriage that's on its last legs whether the other half knows that or not. Ryan Gosling has the showier part — his Dean (the actor's second bad husband in a month, following All Good Things) is mercurial, childish, more prone to both anger and delight, a babbler who tries to control situations by motor-mouthing or goofing through them.

But Williams' Cindy has reached the point where all his sound and fury can no longer pass as anything but static that must be tuned out as much as possible so that things get done. Things like parenting, going to work, getting the bills paid, and so forth. Dean hasn't just lost his antic charm; his act is now clearly a poor cover for basic incompetence. He is an obstacle, an irritant whose clowning, fits of pique, and perpetual failure to be useful have become the domestic equivalent of fingernails on chalkboard.

It's taken a few years for Cindy to realize that she's losing ground in her lifelong battle for self-improvement with every exasperating minute she continues to tolerate him. Williams' bile-swallowing silences and the involuntary recoil that greets Dean's attempts to touch Cindy are the central emotional color of Blue Valentine: that state in which the loyalty, obligation, fear, pity, or whatever has kept you tied to a failing relationship is being whittled away by growing revulsion. Cindy is quiet because if she were to stop bottling it up for just a moment, ugly final truths would scream out.

It's only a matter of time before that moment arrives, though Valentine maintains suspense (and avoids turning into a dirge) by scrambling time — we see this couple at their start and end, the chronology a bit confusing at first. Their paths cross when she's an aspiring med student and he works for a moving company. Scenes of their courtship are charmingly spontaneous but also a bit conspicuously actor-improv, the two stars trotting out cute unexpected skills (he sings like a 1920s crooner, she demonstrates how to memorize all the presidents' names) that seem to be their own, not Dean and Cindy's.

Making only his second narrative feature after 12 years of documentaries, Cianfrance has said he'd sat on Valentine's finished screenplay that entire span, so that by the time funding was in place he'd become "bored" with it. He now wanted the actors to use it only as a structural springboard for their own character insights and dialogue. (You have to wonder how credited cowriters Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne felt about that decision, particularly since they've barely been mentioned in all the film's acclaim since the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.) That approach works better in the flashback scenes between Cindy and her problematic family (as well as Mike Vogel as her then boyfriend Bobby) than those with Dean, or his own with coworker Marshall (Marshall Johnson), which somewhat heavy-handedly spell out Dean's need to belong to somebody.

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