Fine acting, raw emotion highlight post-love drama ‘Blue Valentine’
lthough it bills itself as “a love story,” the unsettling drama Blue Valentine begins after most conventional love stories have long since concluded, some time after happily ever after has morphed into stuck forever. The antidote (or maybe the evil twin) to a thousand Hollywood fluff comedies like How Do You Know, where all that matters is landing the right guy, or gal, this prickly drama from Derek Cianfrance pokes into the raw wound of disappointed dreams and desires while grappling with the elusive nature of love, and why and how it can just as easily slip away.
Blue Valentine is not exactly the kind of movie you clasp to your heart. While it’s acted with remarkable quicksilver precision by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a conflicted young married couple in a blue-collar Pennsylvania neighborhood, it’s tempting to reject their characters as self-destructive losers not worth caring about. But time and again, the film resists this kind of dismissal with the honesty of its emotions as it moves subtly back and forth in time, sketching in a compelling, cumulative portrait of love and its complicated aftermath.
The story occurs over a calamitous day and a half in the marriage of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams). He’s the goofball parent who does all the horsing around with their exuberant 4-year-old daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka)—unconsciously casting Mom Cindy in the “bad cop” disciplinarian role. She’s also the principal breadwinner, a nursing assistant in a doctor’s office (Dean works on a house-painting crew), which often leaves her stressed out and tired around the house.
On the night they decide to pack Frankie off for a sleepover at Grandpa’s house, Dean makes a clumsy attempt to ease the recent tension he’s felt between himself and Cindy by booking them in to a “cheesy sex motel” overnight. Believing all they have to do is “get out of this house, get drunk and make love” to make things right, he can’t even begin to comprehend the depth of anger she can barely suppress about how their lives together have turned out. Neither can we, until a series of beautifully integrated flashbacks fill in the details of how they met, the sweet silliness of their courtship (he plays the uke and she tap-dances to “You Always Hurt the One You Love”), and their fateful decision to “be a family together.”
A decision that does not come without baggage. Both come from broken or unhappy homes. (Her parents “loved each other once. What happened?” teenage Cindy asks her granny. “Did they just get all that stuff out of the way?”) Because motherhood put the kibosh on her dream of going to med school, it infuriates Cindy that Dean claims to aspire to nothing more than being a husband and father. On the other hand, he’s a borderline alcoholic with a volatile temper, an adroit psychological sniper whose rage when he senses he’s been betrayed (by Cindy, by life, by himself) is no less potent for being unacknowledged.
Nothing in the movie sounds scripted; the dialogue comes out with a raw edge that feels (often almost painfully) real. Williams and Gosling are both pitch-perfect at every stage of their characters’ relationship, savvy enough to give equal weight to their silences, as well as to the imprudent words that come tumbling out, and both infuse their characters with reserves of empathy and sweetness just when we’re prepared to hate them the most.
This movie is released with an R rating, after having been threatened by the MPAA with an NC-17. There’s a fair amount of sex (and attempted sex), but don’t go in expecting erotica; like every other minute detail, the sex scenes serve to further the emotional plot in this often devastating and open-ended look at the ways in which we so often hurt the ones we love.
Watch film trailer >>>★★★(out of four)
With Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, and Cami Delavigne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R. 114 minutes.