What I was expecting from Blue Valentine (2010) was a kind of Sid and Nancy (1986) story of two people who are meant to be together but are just toxically wrong for each other. That’s not what it’s like. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet and it’s love at first sight. But that’s not where we meet them. We meet them near the end of their relationship. Dean’s hair isn’t as thick as it once was—I know the feeling—and Cindy isn’t quite as skinny as she once was—I know that one too—but they’ve got a cute daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), and a house and two vans. In the first five minutes, you know the whole story, then you spend the next two hours watching it happen in flashback. Jack and Diane in Technicolor.
Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling teamed up again for the soon to be released The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) and you don’t get too many chances to see a man’s oeuvre as it unfolds. I was pretty excited about The Place Beyond the Pines before and now I’m confidant. Blue Valentine is brutally honest without being tedious or unbearable. I expected to be wildly depressed right about now because of the subject matter, but I’m not. That’s because Cianfrance (with co-writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne) didn’t tell an unbearably balanced story of doom. Half of this story is about love’s triumph, the other half is about whatever you see in it. We’re all going to see something different. There aren’t a lot of movies that I can say that about in a positive way.
This movie reminds me a great deal of Burning Man (2011). We meet the main character in that movie a little later in the relationship arc, but the flashbacks and emotions hit just as hard. Neither movie is your typical, plot-driven film. They’re about the people and the simple, ordinary things that shaped their lives. Yes, large and tragic things happen to them, but these events aren’t unusual. The question is how they will manifest themselves with these particular characters. This is a tough formula to get right, it seems to me. It requires drawing characters that we care about and yet have ambiguous feelings for. That is, the audience has to meet and know these characters like your best friend in under an hour. That’s why you cast incredibly good-looking people who can act brilliantly.
I’ve lost all perspective when it comes to Ryan Gosling. He can do no wrong. Except be in Gangster Squad (2013). That was a mistake. But as the kind, vulnerable Dean he excels himself. He also wrote and performed two songs in this movie for which I will eternally hate him. There may not be such a thing as “too talented”, but if there was, Gosling may be that. He’s writing and directing How to Catch a Monster (set for release in 2014), so he’ll be put to the test. I suspect he will do well. Michelle Williams has come a long way since that angst-ridden waterway. This is easily the best I’ve ever seen her. I didn’t question a moment or a motive once.
I fear I’m giving a bit too much love for this movie, but bear with me for one more compliment. I really like the cinematography from Andrij Parekh. This movie is played incredibly close and that’s perfect. They aren’t really constructing beautiful images so much—not until the end credits which are exceptionally good—but rather they’re telling an intimate story without doing it like a documentary. Okay, and the makeup is really good. And the music (Grizzly Bear).
There are some imperfections and they generally revolve around the Cindy character. As I said, this is not really a balanced story where there’s fault on both sides in equal measure. Some, certainly, would say that Dean is a problematic individual whose lack of ambition would make a relationship impossible. That, however, says more about that speaker than the movie—and that’s the part, the Dean character, where it’s in the eye of the beholder. Cindy, on the other hand, is pretty unsympathetic as a general matter. There are heart-wrenching scenes where she is magnetic in sympathy, but more often she is the figure of my distrust.
The reason for this, as expressed in the movie, is a touch over-done. There are probably people like her father (well played by John Doman of The Wire (2002)), but when the rest of the movie is so reserved, that element is jarring. One might find this reservation to be a flaw. There’s an expectation for broken relationships to be explosive, Raging Bull (1980) events. I would disagree with this straw man and say that Blue Valentine is far better for its reserve.
Two additional, unrelated thoughts. The title is excellent and apt. This is a blue valentine to love. Second, this was rated NC-17 and that’s ludicrous. I know I saw the R-rated version, but even that is tasteful and very well made.
Terrific, gentle, go Cianfrance. Don’t be afraid. Check it out.