Michelle Williams proves her movie-star mettle in Blue Valentine
But it pays off richly in Blue Valentine's present-tense majority, which finds several years' passage has exposed rather than strengthened a commitment originally made under considerable duress. (Bobby's carelessness had left Cindy pregnant at the worst possible time, allowing barely-known suitor Dean to rush in as rescuer. The scene in which she nearly has an abortion will strike many as the film's most uncomfortably intimate — certainly more so than the two tame bits of mimed cunnilingus that initially won Valentine a ridiculous NC-13 rating.) Now the couple are settled in working-class suburban New England, with a modest house, an adorable daughter of about five (Faith Wladyka as Frankie), and a dog that has ominously been missing some hours.
Cindy works as a nurse in an area hospital; Dean appears to be a stay-at-home dad. But we immediately sense the extent to which his not handling that job very well compounds the exhaustion created by hers. Daddy is a great playmate, beer and cigarette already in hand at high noon. Ergo it seems like a fun idea that he and Frankie should jump on the bed to wake up mommy — never mind that her shift probably ended just hours before and her cries to be allowed more sleep sound desperate. Breakfast is another time Dad wants to play, heedless of the reality that a squirmy child must be fed and dressed in time for Mom to drop her off at daycare on the way to work.
His notion of a tension releaser is to insist that Frankie stay overnight with grandpa so her parents can "get drunk and make love." Though Cindy insists, "I'm not going to some cheesy sex motel" (one that, further, will require she drive back two hours to work first thing the next morning), that is exactly the plan forced on her.
Said motel's stupid fantasy "Future Room" (resembling a community-theatre USS Enterprise) becomes the stage for their marital Götterdämmerung. Cindy starts pounding drinks to dull the pain. Dean tries turning on the old wacky charm, prompting her comment, "I thought the whole point of coming here was to have a night without kids." It's downhill from there.
Blue Valentine is raw and uncompromising, if not quite great. It suffers from the fact that while we fully understand where Cindy's coming from (particularly the horrors of her parents' marriage, a model she's determined not to recreate), Dean remains something of a blank. Gosling provides his usual detailed performance, but grasping the insecure failure Dean is now — and that she should have recognized from the start — doesn't fully compensate for our having no idea how he got that way. A couple mumbled sentences about a missing mother and musician father feel forced. Like the actor's role in All Good Things, Gosling's Dean is trying very hard to impersonate the man he'd like to be. But in that film we glimpsed some formative void; here the void is structural, the character self-invention not a condition so much as an actor filling in a surface without getting beneath it. Gosling's excellent stab at an underwritten part is also at a disadvantage in that Williams just about burns a hole through the screen. It's hard to believe she spent years as a fairly interchangeable teen star and Next Big Thing before 2005's Brokeback Mountain revealed a startling propensity for very serious, ordinary, long-suffering women doggedly bailing out sinking canoes.