Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine opens as ominously as any horror film. The chitter of insects is loud. The family dog has gone missing. The father, Dean (Ryan Gosling), directs his daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), to check inside the doghouse, and as the little girl gets down on her knees and puts her head into the darkness, you might fear that gnarled claws will spring out and yank her in. (Chitter chitter chitter …) The camera hovers anxiously over Dean as he gazes down the hill on which his house is perched at the road vanishing into the distance. In the kitchen, Frankie yelps with displeasure at an unwelcome change in her oatmeal. Her grim-faced mother, Cindy (Michelle Williams), has made the mushy, quick kind and used water instead of milk. The camera shivers, as if picking up on Cindy’s angry vibe. Something bad is obviously coming: the death of the child in a car crash; the return of the dog, now hungry for human flesh; a nuclear holocaust. After a start so unnerving, it’s almost a relief to learn that Blue Valentine is merely about a couple with issues.
They are, to be fair, big issues, perhaps insurmountable, and it’s a measure of the actors’ power that Cianfrance’s neurotically in-their-face camera is an annoyance instead of a deal-breaker. The film is a very rough ride with the shock absorbers removed. That dog has symbolic weight. So does an overnight stay in a gimmicky theme motel in which Dean intends to rekindle the relationship. They are ensconced in the blue-lit “Future Room,” which seems suitable only for android mating. Too much cheap vodka adds to the non-fun. When Cindy locks herself in the bathroom, the drunken Dean calls out, “Open the door!” and then, “Open the door!” He keeps it up until you’re almost yelling in unison. The film is not an arm’s-length experience.
Cianfrance has a temporal gimmick that prevents Blue Valentine from becoming a long variation on “Open the door!” He cuts back and forth between what might be the couple’s dissolution and its charged but charming inception. Those flashbacks, in context, elicit marvelously complex emotions, suggesting that what’s right and liberating at one point in a person’s life can be wrong and constricting down the road. John Doman, who played a self-serving police officer on The Wire, needs only a few lines to make Cindy’s dad a nasty, suffocating presence. No better is her crude jock boyfriend (Mike Vogel) and his oops-I-meant-to-pull-out callousness. Cindy, who is prepping herself for medical school, is suddenly pregnant in enemy territory. It’s no wonder that Dean, the blue-eyed musician who loved her at first sight and is kind and makes her laugh and dreams of a family, seems heaven-sent. It is only in hindsight—and hindsight is our vantage—that his lack of ambition (and a high-school degree) makes him less than ideal for a young woman who wants to be a doctor, that his jokiness has a compulsive aspect, that his pursuit of Cindy carries a whiff of obsession, that those baby blues can turn scary.
Gosling is a hot-dog actor of unlimited potential who has clearly watched Taxi Driver too many times. His Dean is more evolved than Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, with the sense not to take his Cybill Shepherd to a porn house. But when he snaps, he has the same wiriness, the same jabbering vocal patterns. For many reasons, Dean loses stature and recedes, while Cindy, a killjoy in the early scenes, becomes the movie’s true protagonist.
Blue Valentine was scheduled to film shortly after Heath Ledger’s sudden death, and Cianfrance opted not to recast but to wait for Williams to recover. I found it hard to watch her without thinking about the couple’s breakup and the impact of his death on Williams and their child. For this movie, though, that isn’t a problem. It might be the opposite of a problem. Always an actress with see-through defenses, she is here, under the handheld camera’s tight scrutiny, a study in fear, in the strain that comes with endless self-protection. Williams is holding it in—and holding it in—so when her Cindy can’t anymore, the effect is momentous. In three scenes, her performance is seismic. The first is a flashback and perhaps the film’s high point, in which she and Gosling duck into the doorway of a closed store, and he induces her, with much prodding, to tap-dance while he plays a ukulele and warbles like Tiny Tim. Her surrender is infectious and enchanting. The second is when she goes for an abortion but halts the procedure. It’s then, in an astonishing shot through venetian blinds, that Cindy hurries to Dean and he rises to the occasion and makes her feel, for once in her life, safe. The last is the moment when she realizes, definitively, that she isn’t.