Film Review: Blue Valentine

Powerful, raw and fluidly shot, this history of a marriage told in shuffled time stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, two of our finest young actors.

If you're in the first flush of a romance, maybe you should skip Blue Valentine. It chronicles in exceptionally vivid detail the demise of a marriage, from the early days of giddy love and ecstatic sex to the couple's doomed effort in a cheesy motel to patch up a connection frayed beyond repair. But it would be criminal to miss this one. Remarkable for its honesty and power, Valentine is the breakout feature of the season, offering searing turns from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, perhaps the finest young actors working today.

A note of distress and loss is sounded from the start with a child's plaintive cry. She turns out to be the daughter of Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) and she's calling their lost dog (whose sad fate dovetails with the dissolution of the couple). Cindy is a medical technician, Dean paints houses, and they live in a modest house in Pennsylvania. It's quickly apparent that their main currency is bickering. Cindy baits Dean about his need to drink a beer at eight a.m. in order to get to work; he counters that it's great to have a job that allows him to drink a beer at eight. The exchange exposes their root conflict: Cindy's disgust with Dean's lack of job initiative. Dean, the more romantic—or groundlessly optimistic—insists that what they both need is a change of scene and books them the “future room” at a cheesy theme motel.

The story shuffles the years, cutting back and forth from the past (shot in vivid 16mm) to two abrasive days in the end-game present (shot in digital). We see the couple meeting cute at a nursing home, where Dean becomes instantly infatuated with Cindy, and the early days of mutual delight. (In a highlight, Cindy tap-dances to Dean singing “goofy” with a ukulele.) We learn of Cindy's dream to become a doctor and escape her blue-collar life, and the difficult choice that impels her to marry Dean. These past moments contrast and alternate with the present, primarily claustrophobic scenes in the motel's “future room,” where it's clear this couple is running on empty—and that Cindy is the more disenchanted. The masterful final section alternates pastel snapshots of their wedding day with the harrowing spectacle of Dean, desperate and drunk, causing a violent ruckus in Cindy's office. And Cindy's final verdict on their marriage: “I can't do this anymore.”

You could argue there's not much in the way of plot, but director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (who physically resembles Gosling) suggests much around the edges, so to speak. Though the storyline is never developed, there's a cute Jewish doctor (Ben Shenkman) in Cindy's office who would likely have suited her better than the deadbeat Dean. And bottom line, the heart of the film is the chemistry between Williams and Gosling. So believable and intense are the early love scenes—and, later, the grating encounters in the motel—the viewer is cast almost as voyeur. In a single naked look, Williams can convey a world of disenchantment and regret.

Blue Valentine also suggests that Cindy and Dean are undone, in part, by some outworn but stubborn ideal of guy-ness. Dean doesn't give a damn, as Cindy would like, about fulfilling his potential, a phrase he can barely get his mouth around. He aspires to be Cindy's husband. For him, the marriage is his life, not job advancement. After he trashes her office, he shouts, tellingly, at Cindy, “I'm a man now.” It's heartbreaking. Cianfrance and his superb actors have created a film of emotional rawness and veracity that also suggests we're prisoners still of conventional notions of masculinity.