Blue Valentine is the hardest kind of film to review. It’s so finely tuned and impeccably crafted, that describing any particular scene would be a great misfortune to potential viewers.
I didn’t know much about Blue Valentine walking in, only that it chronicled the highs and lows of a relationship and was initially slapped with an NC17 rating for sexuality (which, for the record, is utter bullshit). And to be honest, it’d be a sin to divulge any further plot details. This is the delicate balance of reviewing films: if a movie is good, which this one very much is, then it’s my job to get you to see it, without ruining it for you.
Dean (Ryan Gosling, never better) and Cindy (Michelle Williams, never better) meet and fall in love under a set of audacious, yet warmly endearing, circumstances, but are living their 30s in flux. They have a small house, modest jobs, and a lovely young daughter; the type of couple that is able to share a gentle laugh one moment, then scream each other senseless the next.
We get the sense that Dean is content with living life under his full potential. It’s evident, with his skillful sarcasm and tricky wordplay, that he really is an intelligent guy. Cindy has grown to resent him for this, constantly nagging him for not being more. Dean resents her resentment, and the two go round and round.
The film is written in play form, with long scenes of dialogue used as its primary storytelling method. It’s during these long-winded (but never boring) conversations that we get to know Dean and Cindy. Really know them. It’s in these scenes that we are given one of the best, most fleshed out screen couples of recent cinematic memory.
It isn’t important to detail what Dean and Cindy argue about, and the ultimate resolutions of those arguments. What is important to highlight, however, is how well Gosling and Williams pull off a happy couple gone wrong. A lot of movies about couples take place right as the honeymoon phase is wearing off. But I’ve never seen one like this.
Minus an occasional hiccup, Ryan Gosling has made every effort to assert himself as one of the most emotionally charged actors of his generation. His talent has been on full display in a wide range of films, from The Believer to Half Nelson to Lars and the Real Girl. So to say Gosling is a revelation as Dean would be to imply that he didn’t have this performance in him, which is not the case. We always knew Gosling had the acting chops demanded of such a challenging role, and as Dean, he finally gets to flex them. It’s a performance of such effortless skill and self-pity, that you can’t help but sink with him during his downfall. Even before his death, Gosling said Heath Ledger was one of his biggest influences. I believe now is a suitable time to file him among those ranks.
Michelle Williams has, well, seriously impressed me only once, as Ledger’s sorrowful wife in Brokeback Mountain. But here, she adds enough layers and depth to Cindy to comfortably fill five characters. At first, I didn’t know how I was supposed to react to Cindy. Is she the victim? The perpetrator? The loving mother? The bitchy wife? After a while, it clicked: she’s all of them, and more. Cindy is a deeply flawed, emotionally crippled individual, and Williams embodies her marvelously. Both of these actors deserve whatever recognition is floated their way this awards season.
Blue Valentine isn’t exactly easy viewing. Like all great films, its content forces you to examine where you are in your life. Each scene of Blue Valentine emotionally builds on top of the other in a way that is grueling yet strangely cathartic. It isn’t sad, it’s just simply real. And if life is depressing, then so be it. Films are meant to evoke emotional reactions from you, whatever that reaction may be. On that criteria, Blue Valentine fires on all cylinders. It’s as gut wrenching a film about American marriage as I’ve ever seen. A