Blue Valentine Review

(3.5 STARS)

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a minor miracle of a film. Like John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole, the film attacks a familiar subject matter (a breakup) with uncommon emotional honesty. What sets Blue Valentine apart from other similarly themed films is that we become invested without even necessarily wanting this couple to stay together. It’s clear they are wrong for each other, and it’s clear early on that this is a doomed couple. But Cianfrance’s clever structuring and brilliant performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams help keep us actively interested—both intellectually and emotionally—in what happens.

Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) are two increasingly distressed individuals who are struggling with married life and the difficulties of raising a family. Their adorable daughter thinks her parents are perfect, but the truth is very different. Dean is a hot head. Cindy is cold toward him. And while they spend a “romantic” evening together, we flashback to key points in their relationship: The cute meet, the first time they become intimate, the moment Cindy informs Dean that she is pregnant, and their modest courthouse wedding.

The film unfolds like a mystery. We know how this story is ending, but we don’t quite know how these characters got there. The flashbacks, which are peppered with subtle clues as to the source of Dean and Cindy’s differences, serve as important reminders that love always starts with the best intensions. The scenes in the present, however, remind us of the harsh reality that marriage is messy and can often change individuals for the worse, especially when it comes to the way they relate to their spouse.

The film’s two greatest strengths are, without a doubt, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. They are two of the finest young actors working today, and they are incredibly well-matched in this film. They play off of each other perfectly. They understand the climate of this relationship, and they inhabit their characters completely. Dean is more passionate, and Gosling shows that with a fiery intensity. Cindy, on the other hand, has almost completely shut down, and Williams shows the world-weariness of a woman who is ready to give up. It’s a shame she was singled out with an Oscar nomination when the two really are a great team. Alas, it’s good that the film was recognized somewhere, as it should attract more of an audience than it would otherwise.

The big news surrounding this film pre-release was its being singled out with a preliminary NC-17 rating. It was rightfully downgraded to R before its December release, but there are some very difficult moments. Very little of the film is graphic visually or sexually, but it’s very raw emotionally. Not NC-17 worthy or anything, but perhaps more so than any 2010 film, this one is unsettling for the way it makes you feel. I think that’s because the film doesn’t make it easy to take a side. You can see both Dean and Cindy’s contribution to the sorry state of this relationship, but neither of them is more at fault than the other. It’s a true team effort, in this case, to bring this marriage down, and that makes the emotions hit harder. There’s no easy out.

Blue Valentine doesn’t really have any big moments, but the script is very tight, and the direction is good without being obtrusive. Cianfrance clearly wants to get out of the way to let his actors do their thing, and it’s a great decision because Gosling and Williams are at the tops of their games.

Most people go to the movies to see happy endings, and Blue Valentine, if you couldn’t discern from the title, doesn’t offer one. It’s not a fun film to watch, but it’s impossible not to admire on some level.

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