Thursday, January 27, 2011


- Blue Valentine is an amazingly-acted, elegantly-shot, and at times raw, emotionally-intense film. It's one of those movies that I'd encourage people to check out, but that I don't think many people will want to revisit for a second or third viewing. It's a bleak, undeniably depressing movie about a relationship gone sour. And it features characters who are flawed and ugly and not necessarilly all that likable. However, Blue Valentine is filled with little moments of poignancy and emotion that make it stick with you, and again, I have to give it a ton of credit for its two lead performances - both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams really bring their A-game.

Blue Valentine tells the story of a couple whose relationship - built from the start atop a rather rocky foundation - is now finally, perhaps inevitably, starting to come apart at the seams. Dean (Gosling) is a jittery painter whose happy-go-lucky exterior thinly veils the fact that he's contantly on edge - perpetually with a cigarette in his mouth and prone to heavy drinking and the occasional mood swing. On the flipside, he's a doting father to he and his wife's young daughter, and to his credit he worked his way out of a terrible childhood and made a solid, admirable life for himself. Meanwhile, Cindy (Williams), Dean's wife, is a former free spirit who's been worn down by adulthood and parenthood. Working as a nurse, she has long hours and a mounting frustration with her husband's perceived immaturity. The spark she once felt for him has all but evaporated, and glimpses of her old sense of fun and whimsy only occasionally break through her now-frigid facade. As the story of Blue Valentine progresses though, we see the contrast between Dean and Cindy's relationship in its current state with other moments from the earlier days of their romance - their first chance meeting, their first pseudo- first-date, their first early trials, and their first days as a married couple. In the present day, we see the working class couple's disasterous attempt to rekindle their old romance during a trip to a cheesy motel, and the even more disasterous aftermath.

Throughout the entirety of the movie, we are treated to some truly tour-de-force acting from Gosling and Williams. Both have a very tricky task in this film, as we see their characters in various stages and time periods, and both actors do a remarkable job of adjusting their characters - in ways both subtle and pronounced - to fit each flashback. In the present day, the tension just keeps building and building, until things come to a head between Dean and Cindy in an absolutely devastating confrontation that takes place at the hospital at which Cindy works. Prior to that, there are a number of scenes, some more subdued and others pretty intense, in which we see the ways in which the relationship has dissolved - on an emotional, sexual, and spiritual level.

All the while, the movie really pops in a visual sense. Director Derek Cianfrance gives Blue Valentine a sleek-yet-raw look, and uses color and tone in really interesting ways. From the sterile neon-blue of the couple's themed "Future Room" at their hotel to the grayed-out dullness of later scenes at Cindy's father's house ... this is a very artfully-directed movie. In addition, there is some really effective dialogue here as well. There were little snippets of conversation that I really loved. The impromptu first date of Cindy and Dean in particular is filled with all sorts of great, funny, quirky moments.

But I guess what ultimately turned me off a little bit on the movie as a whole was this: I just never liked or cared enough about the characters to ever feel 100% invested in their problems. I feel like the movie would have been more effective if I was really rooting for the relationship to last, or if there was some legitimate element of tragedy to the story. But I found myself surprised with each new flashback to Dean and Cindy's early days - where I expected a story about a good relationship gone bad, that was never really the case. Instead, we saw a relationship that got serious too quickly, that brought together two people who probably never had much in the way of a real connection. That isn't bad in and of itself, but it did sort of feel like the filmmakers wanted us to relate to these two and to root for them. Dean and Cindy's first night on the town together seemed like it was supposed to come off as this charming, magical thing ... but to me the whole thing just felt a bit off. I also thought that the flashbacks were so fragmented that it was hard to really get a feel for the character arcs. The movie chooses to omit the sorts of pivotal, transitional moments that turned the relationship sour. We are left to guess what exactly went wrong, but in a movie like this, I didn't quite see the point of keeping things ambiguous. Cindy in particular is hard to get a read on, and it makes her come off as pretty heartless in the present-day scenes. Whereas we have a better idea of some of the issues that Dean has to deal with, we don't get a clear sense of what exactly has made Cindy who she is. Again, I think the net effect is that you come out of the movie with a vague sense of just having seen something emotionally affecting and stinging play out, but you're also not quite as moved as you might have been if you'd felt more empathetic to the characters. Maybe we're supposed to think that Dean and Cindy are hipster-cool. Maybe we're supposed to see all of the potential they had and feel bad. But they just left me a little cold, and I never really got why they were attracted to each other in the first place. I mostly just felt bad for their young daughter, who was caught in the middle of such a dysfunctional marriage.

Still, Blue Valentine is so skillfully directed and acted that it's hard not to recommend it. Even if I didn't quite grasp its message, I could easily appreciate the artistry behind it. And even if the big-picture purpose of the movie somewhat eluded me, a lot of the smaller moments and individual scenes really stuck with me.

My Grade: B+

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