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Movie Review: Blue Valentine

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 28, 2011 at 3:42 a.m.

Philip Martin is blogging daily with reviews of movies, TV, music and more at Blood, Dirt & Angels.

— Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the story of a six-year marriage, told, in flashback, over the two days it comes apart. It’s a minimalist, unsentimental movie about unremarkable people that might strike some moviegoers as unnecessary or even a drag - it’s certainly not a lot of fun.

Nor is it a particularly original film - it reminded me, at times, of the work of John Cassavetes and David Gordon Green’s pre-Pineapple Express movies, and especially of Neil Armfield’s shattering Candy, which starred Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish as a couple of druggy Aussie bohemians in love.

Yet Blue Valentine feels true in the way that good novels feel true, in that it seems to cut deep into the emotional algebra of the ways humans court affection while acknowledging the genuine complexity of the world. It is challenging and dispiriting but it earns our investment because while the story it tells is ordinary and unsurprising, even in the depths of its sadness, it honors the essential mystery of love. Cianfrance is able to evoke nearly every shade of fallout - from unutterable bliss to desperation and to the curious detachment that allows us to watch ourselves do the unforgivable from a place beyond caring.

Cianfrance cross-cuts between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) final two days as a couple and their first weeks of acquaintance, picking up on familiarity-born resentments, little betrayals (like an unlatched gate) and signal moments of grace. When we first meet them, they seem like a harried young couple on one of the lower rungs of the American middle class - Cindy feels as though she is rearing two kids, their soon-to-be 6-year-old daughter and the loopy, slovenly Dean, who has no ambition beyond being the husband and father he has become (but never expected to be).

He works as a house painter, because, he says, the job requires so little of him that he can drink all day. He has an easy rapport with his daughter, whom he relates to more as playmate than parent.

Cindy, a registered nurse, is clearly embarrassed - disgusted - by Dean, and her frustrations are understandable. She’s the family’s chief breadwinner, and the only disciplinarian, and she resents having to be the adult conscience of the family.Dean, sensing her exasperation, suggests a night out - in a seedy sex hotel, three hours away. They can drop off their daughter at her grandparents, pick up some booze on the way.

Cindy reluctantly goes along with this spontaneous gesture, more from a sense of duty than hope.

While both of the leads do good work here - Gosling, with a receding hairline and air of stunned wistfulness, evokes a familiar kind of man-child - Williams’ brittle, pragmatic and disappointed Cindy is one of the most compelling and well observed screen creations of recent years. You can actually see her playing the withholding of emotion. It’s a difficult role that doesn’t allow for much vanity, and it might cause you to wonder what it cost the actor.

Blue Valentine isn’t a major triumph - it’s a little mannered, and a bit too long and a couple of scenes are sodden with weepy symbolism. But it’s a raw, emotionally devastating experience. It’s the real thing.

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 01/28/2011

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