Falling in love is easy. The end of a relationship, if that day comes, is a great deal harder. This notion is not exactly revelatory, but it is exactly how it is. Simultaneously tracing both sides of one such doomed courtship, "Blue Valentine" puts its charactersand the audiencethrough the veritable wringer. Bittersweet until it just becomes unpleasant, the film is more a showcase for the searing dramatic talents of Ryan Gosling (2010's "All Good Things
") and Michelle Williams (2010's "Shutter Island
") than an insightful or satisfying three-act narrative. That is not to suggest the picture is without authenticityit's above all dripping in subjective and emotional honestybut that its ultimate point is muffled by leading to nothing more than heartbreak and emptiness. There is little hope to be found in what writer-director Derek Cianfrance and co-writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne have wrought.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a young married couple with a precocious daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) and a middle-class lifestyle in the country. Things between them haven't been right in a whileDean has lost his ambition as he's settled into a life of domesticity, while Cindy is overworked as a physician's assistantand their dog going missing from their backyard is only further symbolic of their no longer reciprocal feelings for each other. When Cindy later discovers their pet's lifeless body alongside the road, its death marks one less tie that binds them. Dean believes what they need is to get away from it all. While Frankie stays the night at her grandpa's house, Dean drags Cindy to a themed moteltheir room is ironically titled "The Future," something they don't havein hopes of rekindling a spark. Instead, it's very much the beginning of the end.
"Blue Valentine" traces the demolition of a marriage while recounting the relationship's start. Flashbacks of Dean's days as a mover and his early wooing of college-aged aspiring doctor Cindy are gentle and touching, made all the more so because we know the excitement and joyousness and hopes of their new romance won't last. There is an urgency to these segments in the past, cemented by the pull to not waste time. An elderly man whom Dean is moving into a nursing home when he meets Cindy, herself visiting her beloved Gramma (Jen Jones), has passed away by the time he returns one month later to track Cindy down. This, above all else, is the catalyst that brings Dean a certain amount of clarity in regards to his feelings for this young woman he has only ever met once before. Their initial liaison that follows is rife with idealistic dreams, but is not idealized. Conflicts arise in the form of Cindy's jealous hothead of an ex-boyfriend Bobby (Mike Vogel) and then, like a slap in the face, with her discovery that she's pregnant with Bobby's child. Dean's reaction to learning this, and the actions he takes in response, are enormously selfless. At the same time, this could be seen as the first premature sign that they may not be able to weather every storm. Indeed, Dean's and Cindy's inaugural relationship days are not allowed to fully mature and develop before the realities of life force them to take the next step before they might be ready. In effect, this also cuts short the viewer's own relationship with theirs. The bond between them is palpable, but strikes one as unfinished, lacking the satiated depth of two people in love, full body, heart and soul.
Michelle Williams continues to impress and astonish as an actor, her work in this, as well as in previous films like 2005's "Brokeback Mountain
" and 2007's "Wendy and Lucy
," never less than truthful. Williams seems to be incapable of artifice in her performances. As Cindy, Williams is adorable, vulnerable, and finally devastating as she is faced with making tough life-changing decisions she knows are long overdue. As Dean, Ryan Gosling is uncompromising in his portrayal of a man who is satisfied with his low-striving blue-collar job as a house painter and his existence as a husband and father. He has no other goals than this, something that Cindy has trouble relating to. She has plenty of dreams, most which she still hasn't achieved. The decision to recede Gosling's hairline in the present-day scenes and some of his additional traitse.g., his ratty wardrobe, his chain-smokingfeel a little overdone in conception, but the actor fully sells it nonetheless. Together, Williams and Gosling are excellent, sharing chemistry that counterbalances their characters' differences. Because of their committed work, it's no mystery how or why they fell in love. The use of "You and Me" by Penny and the Quarters as their song, threaded throughout, poignantly compliments them.
On the road to destruction, "Blue Valentine" is unflinching in its raw portrayal of sex between people who no longer share what they once did. This material is somewhat explicit, but more due to the heavy emotions involved than because it's at all graphic. The controversy that stemmed from it receiving an NC-17 rating by the MPAA before they downgraded it to an R is notable for how much the film did not warrant the harsher rating to begin with. "Blue Valentine" is a downer, indeed, and the timeline is one that comes off both rushed and confused, the current-day scenes all set within an overly eventful 24-hour period. Director Derek Cianfrance also is not quite clear what he hopes viewers take away from the end; it might have helped had he introduced even a fleeting glimmer of optimism for Dean's and Cindy's futures, if not as a couple (which is understandable), then as individuals. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are better than "Blue Valentine" as a whole, but one cannot deny the experience rattles with a weary knowledge not easily faked.