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