Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Nineteen

50 10s 19

#19 — Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Michelle Williams carries the weight of a weary life like few of her acting contemporaries. She’s been called upon to portray misery so often that it is all too easy to forget how thoroughly she commits to the totality of her characters. She doesn’t simply bide time until the plot delivers a turn into aching dramatics. She digs deeply into the whole person, providing a sense of how the feelings well up slowly, steadily, surely. The hardest moments — the tears, the anger — arrive with the inevitability of perfect logic. Williams remembers to show the journey. No performance is a better showcase for that skill set than her turn as Cindy in Blue Valentine.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine is about a romance, from its scrappy, enchanting beginnings to its acrid end. Cindy is a student with big plans for the future when she meets Dean (Ryan Gosling), a young man with a more humble place in the world but a surplus of charisma. A courtship becomes a relationship which becomes a marriage. There are struggles and simmering resentments, largely driven by Cindy’s sense that a better life has been denied her by an accumulations of mistakes and bad decisions. Years after wooing her with ukulele-backed warbling, Dean strains to recapture the ingenuous spark of their initial coupling, mostly with clumsy gestures that only drive Cindy further away.

Experimental and intuitive in his approach, Cianfrance often allowed his two leads to shape scenes, working intuitively through rough-sketch scenarios until they found a rich reality. Scenes are often raw, in every sense of word. Cianfrance pieces together the material so the narrative shifts back and forth in time, moving like tumblers in a lock. The film is largely devoid of fussy visual trickery, instead taking in moments in casually, almost like a curious bystander who gathers a strong understanding of others through persistence of observation. It can seem like Cianfrance has sifted through two intertwined lives to find all the telling moments, but that’s not quite correct. Instead, the argument seems to be that every moment is telling.

And that brings me back to Williams. Blue Valentine is a fine duet between her and Gosling, acting harmony through perfecting character disharmony. But it’s Williams who truly demonstrates the unique alchemy a skilled actor can conjure. With few adornments of costume or makeup, Williams convincingly plays Cindy at different ages, the passage of years clear in her bearing and the ache in her eyes. Williams comes at the task of conveying Cindy’s inner being as if it’s a sacred duty to get it right. I believe that, for Williams, it just might be.

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