In Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance does what director John Cassavetes sometimes did: He pushes his actors toward what feel like breaking points, putting them in emotionally charged situations and allowing them to claw their way out — or not.
This look at both the beginning and end of a blue-collar marriage contains moments so potent they seem to put the movie’s principal actors — Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling — at emotional risk. For much of the movie, Williams and Gosling are suspended in the uncharted waters of a turbulent present that neither of their characters fully comprehends.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Cianfrance does this by shattering the usual narrative flow of a story. He shows us the beginning of the relationship and its end, omitting the middle. He also avoids smooth transitions from one time period to another, allowing scenes from the past and present to bump against each other in ways that take some adjustment, and — at least in the early going — create mild confusion.
At heart, Cianfrance’s movie is about two people who enter marriage with totally different expectations. Gosling’s Dean believes it’s possible to be thunderstruck by one woman, so much so that he’ll decide he must spend the rest of his life with her.
Obstacles don’t necessarily matter to Dean. He’s working for a moving company in Brooklyn. Cindy — the woman who ignites Dean’s passion — lives in Pennsylvania. He knows nothing about her, and she knows nothing about him. No matter; he’s got a feeling.
Besides being hopelessly naïve, Dean’s approach causes him to ignore a lot of warning signs, and puts him in an awkward position: Once he achieves his goal, there’s nothing left. He’s without aspiration.
For scenes set in the present, Gosling has trimmed his hair to create a receding hairline and put on weight. Six years into marriage, Dean is contented being a house painter. His idea of a relationship-renewing experience involves checking into a tacky motel in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, getting drunk with his wife and spending the rest of the evening having sex. He knows the motel is silly, but doesn’t care. He’s ready to enjoy the silliness.
Dean’s life plan might have worked, except for one thing. Cindy no longer shares it, if she ever did. After being charmed by Dean, who has an unashamedly goofy streak, she marries him in a moment of weakness and need, a psychological state suggested by plot details best discovered in a theater.
When we first meet them, Cindy and Dean are already on the downside of their marital arc. They live in Pennsylvania. She works as a nurse for a doctor who bolsters her self-esteem. She’s beginning to wonder whether she can get more out of life. Dean plays with their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyaka); he works; he drinks beer; he’s living his dream; Cindy’s living his nightmare.
In one of the earliest scenes, the fully clothed Dean has fallen asleep in a living room chair, where he’s presumably spent the better part of the night. Frankie is out looking for the family’s missing dog. Cindy remains in bed. Clearly, the family is not operating with the greatest possible synchronicity.
Both Williams and Gosling face difficult challenges. A movie such as Blue Valentine demands that its actors respond with what must appear to be unrehearsed immediacy. Each character has been given some history, but Williams and Gosling pretty much are disconnected from the logical supports traditional narratives provide.
This can be powerful, but it also can look strange and a touch unconvincing. When Dean courts Cindy with a ukulele, he croons a silly version of You Always Hurt the One You Love, and asks her to dance to it. They’re on the street, tucked into the entranceway of a small store in her Pennsylvania hometown. The moment has wacky charm, yes, but it’s also self-consciously dippy.
And when Dean — during another courtship segment — tries to force Cindy to tell him a secret, he climbs over the railing of a fence on the Brooklyn Bridge, presumably threatening to leap if Cindy doesn’t reveal her secret. Gosling has said that he climbed the fence, waiting anxiously for Williams to capitulate so that he could come down. Two actors challenging each other to see how far each will go generates a certain kind of theatrical excitement, but it doesn’t necessarily equate with believable behavior.
The sex scenes in Blue Valentine are explicit, and initially resulted in an NC-17 rating, since overturned to give the movie an R, which seems more in line with the content and context that Cianfrance establishes. “R” is the right rating, and Blue Valentine certainly is worth seeing — for its performances, for the nearly palpable — if sometimes strained — commitment to truth seeking that seems to underlie every scene and for the director’s willingness to condense the narrative in hopes that he’ll find something essential.
Maybe it’s just this: Once someone checks out of a marriage, the relationship is doomed. Cindy pretty much has given up on Dean. She’s sold her emotional stock in the relationship. Poor Dean. From that point on, all he can do is make matters worse.