The mood in Blue Valentine is like the Dave Alvin song "Fourth of July" set to film. It's July 3 for a working couple in Scranton, Penn.: Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a nurse married to Dean (Ryan Gosling), a housepainter, who wakes up in his clothes in the living room to find out the family dog is missing. The parents get their five-year-old daughter fed and taken to school while trying not to fight. That evening, Dean has a bad idea: the two of them will head for one of those honeymoon-themed motels in the Poconos for a romantic getaway.
As they travel, there are flashbacks showing us the way they met some five or six years previously. Dean was once an aimless kid, working at a moving-van company in Brooklyn. On a job in Pennsylvania, he has a chance encounter with Cindy. She was, at the time, a pre-med student involved with a real alpha-male type named Bobby (Mike Vogel). Dean decides that she is his destiny, and it's love at first sight. And now they have been married for five years.
"Welcome to the future," Dean says as they settle down to some serious vodka drinking. Cindy and Dean, on edge already, spend the night in a space-ship-themed vacation room with steel walls, a glowing console and a round rotating bed. The memories come back unbidden, all the way to the hungover dawn.
Blue Valentine's biggest problem is common to films that have been slaved over for a decade, as this one was. Some of the details are still in director Derek Cianfrance's head. The movie's shifts of time grind, even with matching shots. We keep wondering where we are in the story now.
The performances on the outer rings of the film aren't as dense as Gosling and Williams' searching explorations of a troubled marriage. Sylvia Sidney lookalike Jen Jones is memorable as Cindy's grandmother. Ben Shenkman, playing Cindy's boss, would have needed three times as much screen time to develop his character's motives.
That said, Blue Valentine's main point of view belongs to Cindy, who as the dissatisfied party takes over the film. She wants out of the marriage even as Dean clings to it, and cinema always favors the moving over the still: Dean's indication that he's finally made it in life is that he gets to drink beer on the job.
What we start to see, thanks to Williams' acting, is something bigger than this couple's feud, something more like the war of the body and the soul. Williams' body has been fixated on by the film writers, and that's OK because it popularizes an important tragic film. But there's nothing yielding, teasing or popularly erotic about the way Cindy handles Dean's need for intimacy.
So Gosling has tough work as an actor, portraying this man watching the love of his life slip away. His Dean can be childish, or childishly debonair, calling his seething wife a "saucy little minx" as if that'll sweeten her temper. He's insistent, but so is a drowning person. More than anything, the film clarifies what a terrible thing "romantic destiny" would be if it really existed.
Problem-wracked as it is, Blue Valentine may prove to be one of the most ambitious films of the year. And as for Williams, she gives a performance that will likely be difficult to top.
Blue Valentine opens Jan. 14 at Summerfield Cinemas (551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa; 707.522.0719) and is currently playing at Century Regency (80 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael; 415.479.6496).