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.
It can be argued that beginnings and endings of relationships are relatively simple to diagram, and that the true drama happens in that hazier middle zone—the part that Cianfrance leaves out. By the time we get our first glimpse of Cindy over her bad quick oatmeal, her mind is essentially made up. It would have been fascinating to see her first twinge of uncertainty: What triggered it? On the other hand, three time periods would make Blue Valentine more head-spinning in places than it already is. More than two, and you start having flashbacks to Lost.
As little Frankie, Faith Wladyka is an unusually convincing child actress, and it’s her playful and funny rapport with Gosling’s Dean that makes you like him even when the darkness is taking hold. To Cindy, he’s another child to take care of. To Frankie, he’s the person who makes her feel safe. Perhaps that horror-film-like threat to the child in the movie’s first scene is apt after all. Blue Valentine leaves you with the shattering vision of its truest victim—the one who’ll someday look for safety in places it might not be. And the psychodrama will go on and on …
Another year, another Mike Leigh gem, this one called Another Year, a minor-key ensemble drama: four seasons in the life of an aging couple—Tom, a geologist, and Gerri, a medical counselor—played by those wonderful Leigh veterans Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They are true Earth People, first seen tending to their vegetable garden a short distance from their suburban London house, comfy together with their graying hair and thickening waists. Their home is roomy and inviting, a place of refuge for lonely people, among them their good-hearted, thirtyish son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), and Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who’s in appalling physical shape and getting fatter and more sadly soused by the day. The film’s most epic lost soul is Mary (Lesley Manville), an alcoholic with teased hair and plunging blouses and a desperate eye for a suitable man who will have her—even, at one point, Tom’s broken-down, barely verbal, newly widowed brother (David Bradley).
Leigh fans will be in clover amid all this garrulous despair and grotesquerie. For others, Another Year will test the paradox of Leigh’s work. It’s well known that he presents his actors with characters and a premise rather than a finished script and sends them out to amass details, physical and psychological. When they return with their bounty, he shapes a screenplay and films them indulgently. The more prodigious their misery, the more indulgent he is. The problem is that most viewers spend less time marveling at the actors’ inventiveness than being crushed by the weight of the characters’ suicide-worthy lives. It’s particularly true here: Leigh has given Manville, a frequent collaborator, a monumental pedestal, which means that every admiring close-up of her builds to some cringe-worthy humiliation.
My advice: Steel yourself against the too-muchness, and savor, as if you were a social scientist, the variety of ways in which middle-class English people create edifices in which to house their aloneness. Leigh opens in the office of Gerri’s colleague (Michelle Austin) with a close-up of Imelda Staunton as a woman so utterly depressed and shut down that every scene that follows feels escapist in comparison. (Asked what would improve her life, she murmurs, barely audibly, “Different life …”) With their shared lot, Tom and Gerri are exemplary—and yet their happiness has an aspect of complacency. They know they’ve got this human-isolation thing licked and view Mary and her ilk with a mix of sympathy and condescension: the poor dear. But it’s better to be them than others, which means the lesson of Another Year is: Get busy on that garden.
Sofia Coppola’s absent-daddy issues are front and center in Somewhere, about a rich and promiscuous movie star (Stephen Dorff) who is, in existential terms, nowhere, and the young daughter (Elle Fanning) he barely sees but has to tote along on a promotional trip to Italy. This is a mood piece, shapeless but often lyric. There is, on one hand, all that sex and wealth and glamour; on the other, a floating wistfulness in the absence of home. Coppola’s poor-rich-girl vision is certainly consistent, although you sometimes wonder if she knows that hers is not the universal human condition.