Mark Reviews Movies


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Jen Jones

MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 12/29/10 (limited); 1/7/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 7, 2011

Blue Valentine, like the male component of its pair of lovers (crossed by no star in this case, only his inability to consider her as an equal and her inability to any longer put up with being treated like a useless, lying, cheating thing without being any of those), has only two levels. Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are in love, and then they resent the hell out of each other.

Years go by, a child grows up, and who knows how many drinks and accusations pass in between the two states, though we are only left to suppose. It is strange, we note, that Dean does not look directly into Cindy's eyes except in glances before his eyes wander somewhere else, considering something that's not her. When she won't tell him what's troubling her, it's not particularly odd that he would notice and insist on knowing, but he takes it that one step further and threatens to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Then he takes it even past the point of suspicious activity and climbs the gate, putting one leg over toward the water below. Whether he means it or not is beside the point: Here is a man (a boy, really) who will inevitably harm himself or someone else one day, no matter how passionately and frequently he protests against such a claim.

For Gosling and Williams, co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance's tale of the setting and explosion of a ticking time bomb of a marriage is a showcase. They are not merely playing the range of moments and moods but creating a history. First, in less detail, are Cindy and Dean's solitary lives. She's dating another guy (Mike Vogel), who's also an insensitive, potentially abusive jerk (Her father (John Doman), we see in one dinner table scene, is the same way, ranting and raving about the quality of his meal). He starts a new job with a moving company. They meet when she is visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) at a nursing home while he explains where and how he's arranged a new resident's clothes and belongings.

They are both kind people, as far as we can tell. Dean even has a tattoo of a heart on his sleeve and of an illustration from Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree on his shoulder. It's a certain type of person who feels the need to advertise with such clarity his own high opinion of his character, and Dean is certainly of that sort.

He's sweet to their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), talking to and playing with her on her level. Some daughters are daddy's little girl, but he seems to want to be daughter's friendly father instead. Cindy constantly suggests that she's raising two children.

This is where the movie starts, even though their relationship has just about run its full course by then. The tension between the two is palpable from the outset and comes to a head after Cindy arrives late to Frankie's school recital. She has found the family dog dead on the side of the road after it escaped earlier that day. She breaks the news to Dean, and he immediately blames her for leaving the gate open. She cries, and they are not tears over the dog. The performances are specific enough that we sense he has played this game over and over, firmly censuring her for such little transgressions or others she didn't do, and this instance is just one more time.

The screenplay by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, and Cami Delavigne cuts back and forth from the present rot of their attempt to rekindle the flame of love during a drunken rendezvous in a cheesy motel to the fresh times when they first caught each other's eye, sang and danced, picked out a song to call their own ("Nobody, baby, but you and me," it says, and that's part of the problem), and decide to start a family together, even though the child is not his.

The performances may be subtle and strong, but the conceit of the screenplay and its execution are not. The foreshadowing of decay is present in the flashbacks, and its certainty is apparent in the present. A key step, though, is missing. The progression in the intervening years is felt but never experienced. The juxtaposition of the timelines is succinctly ideal vs. reality.

It's simply the shorthand version of the truth about these two characters, familiar types made full by Gosling and Williams. They are vital to Blue Valentine, and almost inflate the movie's flat ambitions.

Copyright 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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