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.
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.
Her range is as yet an unknown — next up is My Week With Marilyn (yes, Monroe), which might not sound a natural fit, though clearly she has the craft to go way past mere breathy sexpot imitation. As her very different role in Valentine underlines, she has an uncanny knack for capturing every nuance in essentially uncomplicated personalities. Cindy is probably the least colorful, exciting, or humorous major female role of last year by conventional fiction standards. Williams manages to make her very ordinariness completely engrossing.
BLUE VALENTINE opens Fri/7 in Bay Area theaters.