REVIEW: Love Stinks -- and Gosling and Williams Shine -- in Blue Valentine

Movieline Score:

Blue Valentine is such a mannered, affected piece of filmmaking that in its early minutes, I wasn't sure I'd be able to survive it. A prematurely aged Ryan Gosling, wearing an aggressively receding hairline -- the character he's playing appears to be 27 going on 62 -- is roused from an armchair snooze by his young daughter, who informs him, with the kind of solemn urgency that kindergarteners pull off so well, that the family dog has gone missing. Gosling's Daddy Dean, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, scoops the girl into his arms (her name is Frankie, and she's played by a grave charmer named Faith Wladyka) and the two head out into the family's scrubby yard on a search mission.

As openings go, this one reeks of deadbeat realism: We've seen that the family lives in a somewhat beaten-up, beaten-down house; we know something bad has happened to the dog; we can sense from the blend of exhaustion and concern on Dean's face that he'll do anything for his daughter and yet he isn't getting enough sleep, enough love, enough something. And a little later, when we see the face of his wife, and Frankie's mom, Cindy (Michelle Williams), it becomes clear that very little in this household is right. Cindy's pretty, elfin features may as well be obscured by a grayish storm cloud. She looks careworn and disheartened, spent from the inside out.

The early moments of Blue Valentine show us a young couple getting through daily life, just barely, and they also clue us in to the fondness the director, Derek Cianfrance, harbors for too-tight close-ups and lingering shots of oblique, nondescript surroundings. But in the battle between claustrophobic, showily indie filmmaking and the raw openness of the lead actors, the latter wins by a long shot. The faces of these performers -- particularly Williams' -- are the key to Blue Valentine.

Cianfrance -- who cowrote the script with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne -- has structured the movie as a kind of back-and-forth dialogue between a relationship's beginning and its end; he essentially treats this relationship as if it were an interview subject. We first see Cindy and Dean trapped in their tiring, unsatisfactory lives. Then we see them as younger, freer versions of themselves, people who are open to possibilities, not beaten down by realities. Cindy is a college student (she hopes to study medicine) living somewhere in a less-than-urban but not-quite-rural part of Pennsylvania. Dean, who lives in Brooklyn, works as a mover. He meets Cindy one day as he's getting a customer settled into a nursing home. She's there visiting her grandmother, and for him (though not for her), it's love at first sight.

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  • Kate Erbland says:

    After missing BV at Sundance, I feel as if I've waited all year to see it (and, well, I have). I think that I expected to feel much more of an even keel for Dean and Cindy - to see that the collapse of the relationship was both of their faults. Yet, at the end of finally seeing the film, and with a large group of other ostenible film nerds (including one of my other critics) with varying tastes, we all had the same experience - we loathed Cindy. Loathed. Hated. Could not stand. This is, of course, a huge testament to Williams' talent, but something that I simply could not get beyond when thinking of the film.
    After pondering it, I finally came up with my own reason for why I hated her so much - I really think Cindy never loved Dean. And I would love to hear what everyone else thinks of that.

  • steve says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Cindy never loved Dean. I remember a pivotal scene when she decided not to have an abortion, and Dean was there to support her about her decision. And when on the bus, he says, "let's start a family" and she momentarily breaks free from the clutches of Dean and looks at him, for a moment, trying to read him. He was cradling her like a baby, and she felt protected, safe. So when she says I love you back to him, I cringed on my seat. And thought, oh boy, this ride is going to be a short trip. Sacrifice is not the way to start love.

  • Electra says:

    I admire Stephanie's insightful review but cannot agree that the movie "belongs to Michelle/Cindy." If it has to be put in those terms, it belongs to both actors. I think Williams gives an extraordinary and courageous performance by portraying an unsympathetic character--which puts me in total agreement with the previous two commentators. Her cruelty made her unlikeable and she doesn't seem to ever have loved Dean. But then, why marry someone out of gratitude?

  • rickflick says:

    I have to disagree with the first three posts. I felt nothing but sympathy for the Cindy character for being stuck with such a pathetic, schizophrenic and irritating loser. The only scenes that Dean seems remotely likable -- playing with the daughter and fixing up the man's room at the nursing home --are SO sugar-sweet and over-the-top that they strain credibility. And speaking of credibility, Ryan Gosling aged, like, 20 years in what is supposed to be a 5 year period, and his accent keeps changing as often as his personality and hairline. Like Stephanie Z, I think Michelle William's performance is the best thing about the movie. The hipster stylings are way too cutesy and stiff and self-indulgent -- and the sheer length of the film wore me down to a nub. By the end, I wanted a divorce too.

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