Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, Mike Vogel
Written by: Derek Cianfrance/Cami DeLavigne/Joey Curtis
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Since we no longer live in the “good ol’ days” of the 1950’s, our society’s ability to accept hard truths has slowly gotten better. This is especially true when it pertains to the institution of marriage. Most entertainment in the old days gave off the impression that getting married and starting a family was as easy as pie; you meet someone, fall in love, pop a couple squirts out, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even when there were problems introduced, they were of the comedic variety or ones that required a simple solution that had no further consequences down the road. But nowadays, we’re a much more cynical bunch who have come to accept the fact that marriage ranges from “pleasant” to “difficult” to “downright painful”. Many of us have watched as our parents had a nasty divorce, and others have realized that while their parents did stay together, they weren’t very happy about it (some were lucky enough to avoid either, and good on them for it). Entertainment is a mirror to society, and now we’re getting more stories that don’t end happily or don’t have simple to solve problems (mostly).
Blue Valentine, the first narrative feature from Derek Cianfrance, doesn’t pull any punches. A character study that follows a couple from happiness to utter despair and loathing, it isn’t afraid to show you the nasty side of relationships and marriage. This results in a movie that not only feels raw and realistic, but also leaves you a bit disheartened. If that’s how love can end up, why the hell would anyone want to pursue it?
The couple in question is comprised of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). When we first meet them, they are married and raising a young daughter named Frankie (Faith Wldyka). They are also absolutely miserable, with Cindy fed up with Dean’s childish behavior and Dean trying desperately to keep the flame in their marriage from going out. As we experience their current life, Blue Valentine also gives glimpses and slivers about how they met and where they were as people years before. In the beginning Dean was a happy go lucky guy who worked at a moving company and enjoyed both his job and the people he came in contact with, while Cindy was in college to become a doctor and in a bad relationship with Bobby (Mike Vogel), who’s only interested in her for her body. After her and Bobby having a falling out involving an accident during a tryst, she falls for Dean and his charm.
Blue Valentine gives us a glimpse into both sides of the story, and presents two fleshed out characters whose flaws equally lead to their eventual dissolution. Dean may be a romantic, but his lack of drive and immaturity are maddening and it’s easy to see why Cindy would eventually tire of his antics. She herself is not absolved of anything, and in fact may be the more complicated and messed up of the two; witnessing her dad berate her mother as she grew up led to her sleeping with and seeking affection from some less than stellar guys. Her budding romance with Dean begins at her weakest moment, which puts the relationship on shaky ground to begin with.
The triumph of the movie is that although the two characters have their undesirable traits, they are also empathetic and you really feel for them as people. This is helped along by Gosling and Williams, who deliver absolutely stunning performances. They are completely fearless, and lose themselves inside their characters. Their chemistry also keeps the relationship in Blue Valentine feeling realistic; yes they are incompatible but the way they act and react around each other (at least through the courtship) makes it completely understandable why they’re together. A scene that has been talked about to death, Dean singing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” while playing his ukelele while Cindy dances along, is the perfect example of this. It’s simple, but it’s also sweet and brilliant.
It’s just unfortunate that Blue Valentine feels the need to beat the audience over the head with everything. Right at the beginning, they use two separate conversations Dean and Cindy are having with others to 100% explain why they will eventually split up. Dean talks about how women settle while men fall in love, so obviously Cindy’s going to be that person, while Cindy’s grandmother explains to her that she never truly loved her husband, which pretty much nails Cindy’s motivation and what she brings to the table. I wanted to yell “I GET IT!” at that point; I was hoping the movie would show me instead of tell me, but it essentially gives away the whole movie right then and there.
Blue Valentine is still worth watching though, especially if you have a friend who idealizes marriage and doesn’t understand just how daunting it can be. This will give them a swift kick to the junk and set them straight. Gosling and Williams act the hell out of it, and although it panderingly explains to you what’ll happen in a bad attempt at foreshadowing, the ride is still interesting and heartbreaking enough to go on. There’s no bullshit here, and I respect the hell out of it.
P.S. If you’re wondering about the sex scenes that initially gave this an NC-17 rating, don’t; we’ve all seen worse on the Internet. The MPAA just freaked out because it wasn’t sensationalized and they are afraid of humans and their sensual urges. Decapitations are fine, however. Sigh.