starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Faith Wladyka
screenplay by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
directed by Derek Cianfrance
ALL GOOD THINGS
starring Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall
screenplay by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling
directed by Andrew Jarecki
starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh
screenplay by David Lindsay Abaire, based on his play
directed by John Cameron Mitchell
by Walter Chaw In the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf end-of-year awards-bait sweepstakes, the ingredients for prestige seem pretty clear: one part Ryan Gosling (or Ryan Gosling substitute), one part beautiful starlet going the Full Monty (it's good to be Gosling), and one part sad arguing. Mix well and reap a bounty of critics raving about career performances of intensity and courage (translation: lots of crying, lots of naked if girl), introduce bored-but-not-admitting-it audiences to indie-rock darlings like Grizzly Bear, and present the awards-season cinephiles with rosters of once and future Sundance savants. Films like Blue Valentine, All Good Things, and Rabbit Hole generally impress festival audiences and people who can't afford to go to festivals but wish they could--there's a certain hunger for movies screened in rarefied air that proffer misery and Sandra Oh for the arthouse schadenfreude freakshow. A long time in the company of people we're glad we don't know, call it reality television for assholes who don't admit they watch reality television. For my money, the gold standards for such remain Eye of God and Lars Von Trier's Antichrist.
The best of the current bunch is CU alum Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, which takes the Harold Pinter position of diagramming the disintegration of a relationship back to front with lots of close-shot, amber-lit conversations brought to a boil. Intimate in conception, it's made all the more difficult for the performances of Gosling and Michelle Williams as young couple Dean and Cindy: in love when they meet, less so a few years later. The final shot subverts the popular meaning of fireworks in the United States in the same way Takeshi Kitano did once upon a time in his transcendent Hana-Bi, while a scene that should titillate for Williams's willingness to "courageously" drop trou' at an erotic hotel instead becomes one of the more uncomfortable and character-revealing moments of 2010. The picture has frankness despite its occasionally distracting self-consciousness; credit again to its leads for creating characters who are essentially unlikeable but compelling just the same. It's like not turning away from the proverbial trainwreck, but in the Bergman sense rather than in the Nicholas Sparks sense.
Gosling, the new Edward Norton/Christian Bale, creates in Dean the very figure of arrested American masculine fragility, spinning himself into a fugue of unrequited desires and frustrated ambition. Dean's a house painter with a drinking problem who marries a girl he wins over with a ukulele and a savage beating at the hands of said girl's meatstick ex (Mike Vogel). As the film skips forwards and backwards in time, Cindy's present-day job at a doctor's office comes to represent stability and, ultimately, a threat to Dean's already-fragile manhood, perhaps proving itself to be the breaking point in their marriage. Cianfrance uses their physical relationship as a flowchart for the power struggle between the two--and at the end, he laudably resists taking sides. So it's a grown-up film that trusts its audience to have had the experience of the full flower of a relationship ground into dust, and bile, and recrimination. Not without its faults and moments of creaky pretension, Blue Valentine manages at the end to provoke a real, resonant response to what it means to lose love to the ugly realities of living.
Which Andrew Jarecki's fiction debut, All Good Things, for all its dark-stringed instruments and temporal shenanigans, does not. This time, Gosling is David Marks, son of "Deuce" landlord Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) and in love with hippie-chick Katie (Kirsten Dunst). He tries for a time to distance himself from the unsavoury source of his trust funds with his lady love, opening a health-food store in the boonies before being drawn back into the family business, leaving miserable Katie to get an abortion and start a coke habit. Gosling's David is all voids and sudden rages, his masculinity again in question because he can't quite complete an Oedipal split arrested first when, as a small boy, his mother kills herself in front of him, then when daddy dearest badgers him into taking a luxury suite in Manhattan so David can better collect suitcases full of cash from smut peddlers. If the psychology is pocket, the execution is similarly plodding and disengaging, laying out the facts of Katie's eventual disappearance with the same arc as any number of beaten-wife melodramas. It reminds, of all things, of Dan Harris's Imaginary Heroes (also starring Michelle Williams), in that it's a rather meticulously-detailed period piece that fails almost completely to offer up any human interest in its pursuit of human truth. For the record, Gosling is good as both the young and the old--the in-love Marks and the insane one. And Dunst is "courageous."
Not courageous in the figurative or literal sense is John Cameron Mitchell's histrionics lesson Rabbit Hole, wherein a couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), endures the first months of loss after their only child dies in a tragic street-crossing accident. We follow the pretties through the paces of their suffering as Kidman's outtakes from Margot at the Wedding allow the uglies in the audience to feel self-righteous catharsis at her taking down a couple of churchies at a support group and her sister's entire birthday party. The best moments, in fact, consist of people rolling their eyes at the grieving mother in quiet exhortation for her to fucking shut up already--a nice reversal of the picture's intent for us to get a few rocks off at Becca's constant lashing out. We're meant, too, to pity poor, jaw-clenched Howie, trapped as he is in the eye of Becca's tyranny-of-the-weak hurricane. Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay Abaire constantly rears its literary head by giving Becca and Howie each their secret sharers into which they might pour exquisitely-(over?)wrought monologues about loneliness and entropy. Tidy, bland, Rabbit Hole is the kind of movie that really doesn't want to offend in its tale of child death and making friends with Sandra Oh when, in truth, offense and discomfort are the only things one should probably feel in the face of such awfulness. It's Patrick Marber without the cum-tasting, and the mystery of it being a John Cameron Mitchell joint is that it's all so goddamned polite. Originally published: January 7, 2010.