Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Blue Valentine": A Film Review

Prologue: There is one beautiful shot in "Blue Valentine" in which a bus, carrying the two protagonists, is seen in long-shot driving down a city street.  At the beginning of the shot, a half of a rainbow is seen in the upper left corner of the frame.  As the shot ends, the other half of the rainbow is seen in the upper right corner.  It appeared to be a raw shot, without CGI or any other special effect.

It would be impossible to write this into the script, without assuming that a process shot would be needed.  
And its inclusion in the film would be almost too coincidental if it were an accident.
I wondered if someone just happened to capture a shot of a bus and a rainbow, and then built a whole film around it.  (Such are the things that intrigue me about the creative process.)
~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~  

It is a credit to the film "Blue Valentine" that its stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, are so good.  There is little else besides them in the movie, as they nakedly inhabit two complex and troubled individuals.  I don't think there is any point in which either of them do not appear, and most of the time they are examined closely, in various stages of emotional dissolution.

While "Blue Valentine" is often difficult to watch, a viewer comes away reflective, somber, but thankfully, not devastated.  This is not a movie for the ages, but an effective contemporary telling of a universal story of lost intimacy.  It is probably a classic of some kind,  creating new  rules for the cinematic treatment of a troubled marriage. 

"Blue Valentine" takes a look at why one marriage disintegrated,  juxtaposing its final, painful moments with scenes of tenderness and support at the relationship's beginning.  As it progresses we slowly learn about the couple's fragile arrangement, and find clues about what would eventually destroy them.  The things they initially found charming about one another become repulsive to them by the end.  Missteps in communication (as the marriage is ending) begin to make sense as the details of early crises (later in the film) bring the relationship into focus.

Ryan Gosling's character, Dean, is an aimless, goofy, deceptively simple sort of guy, who lacks ambition, instead finding satisfaction, to his surprise, as a husband and a father. Williams' character, Cindy, is riddled with baggage and hurt: raised in a home with an emotionally abusive father and ineffective mother, she is intelligent enough to finish medical training, but finds her plans almost derailed by the affections of a handsome but coarse and violent lover.

An early sequence, in which the family dog has run away, and the couple's young daughter stands alone in a field calling the dog's name, has an undercurrent of resignation and resentment.  William's in particular shows enormous skill in her reaction to the dog's fate, trying to balance her regret and sadness with acceptance of Gosling's angry outburst at her. For a while, the film is unclear about what brought these seemingly impossibly-matched people together in the first place.

Soon, these questions are answered by flashing back (and changing the grain of the film, and the lighting and color schemes) to the more plot-driven early sequences.

In Dean, Cindy finds an escape from her oppressive home life and brutally carnal ex-boyfriend.  She is drawn to Dean's gentleness and his non-judgmental regard for her.  She also finds a possible father for her child.  Dean is charming, and admires Cindy's beauty and ambition, and is himself charmed by her appreciation of his quirkiness, his humor.  She also accepts his spontaneity and doesn't judge him. The film also suggests her acceptance of his seeming impotence.

The film cuts between the beginning and the end of the relationship, eliminating anything in the middle that may explain their changes of character along the way.  The movie asks us to believe that there were no turning points in their marriage, but merely that old resentments and  annoyances slowly festered into major explosions of frustration.  Given how the characters have been shaped and portrayed, I think this works.

As we learn more, Cindy's motivations seem less clear, and we begin to sympathize more with Dean. In fact, the viewer is likely to form a love/hate relationship with both of the characters. Each clearly made sacrifices, and bad decisions along the way, yet we hope that they can find common ground.  (It just feels like Dean made the bigger sacrifice and Cindy's rejection appears ungrateful.)

Dean, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their relationship, reserves a room in a cheesy sex-themed hotel, choosing the "Future Room", which (from what we can tell) looks like a 1950's sci-fi movie set, bathed in blue light, but with a rotating bed.  The scene provides a microcosm of their entire marriage: playful at times, sentimental, then the old habits kick in, he doesn't listen to her and twists her words, she is impatient and wants him to "do something" (career-wise? sexually?). She finally locks him in the bathroom to sleep on the floor while she leaves for work.


 I wish the film breathed a little here, and SHOWED us the entire room.. I guess, giving the benefit of the doubt, the relentless closeups effectively represent the characters' own sense of claustrophobia and entrapment and inability to see the world around them...especially the "future". 

Actually, the symbols in the film fall with a light thud.  Why does Dean sport a t-shirt with an  American Eagle on it? And why does the film end on the 4th of July?  Something, perhaps, about the pain involved in gaining independence?  No political interpretation seems to work, and would be inappropriate here anyway.  More effective is the parallel between the missing dog and Dean's departure: the sadness of both situations has come full-circle.

I am mystified by critics who felt Gosling's performance is as slack as his character.  Actually, I think both actors have done some of their best work here. Gosling's slow recovery after being bested in a fight, as he crawls to a ringing telephone, is breathtaking.  His soon-to-be classic number with a ukulele makes a potentially trite scene very warm and memorable.  The physical transformation of his character (look at his hairline in the "later" scenes) is as effective as Gosling's muddled fast-talk and his insecure, middle-aged desperation.  He is terrific.

Williams has matured since "Brokeback Mountain", and is believable, first as a young student, and later, an impatient, weary spouse.  Her self-ministrations after painful sex, her overwhelming emotional decision in an abortion clinic, and her outpouring of pent-up frustration during a climactic shouting match, show her amazing range while remaining within the parameters of her character.

In its ultimately sad and cathartic message about love and loss, I was reminded of George and Martha's emotional brutality in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".  What prevents this from being a modern-day "Virginia Woolf" is a slackness in the writing. Albee's language was precise and profane, and every line, every word, carried weight.  Here, the actors have been given more freedom to improvise, and some of the scenes go on well after the point has been made.  Dean and Cindy will endure as modern flawed heroes, but will never achieve mythic status.

Whereas "Virginia Woolf" was verbally shocking, "Blue Valentine" is street-wise and physical in ways "Woolf" would never have dared to be.  The MPAA originally gave "Blue Valentine" the extreme NC-17 rating (adults only) for a couple of love scenes similar to those found in other films rated R ("Monster's Ball" and "Black Swan" come to mind). The rating was silly, but the prolonged scenes probably scandalized the ratings board, because of the genuine expression of pleasure portrayed in one sequence.  While no genitals were exposed, there was no doubt about what was going on.  Kids who make it to this point in the film without losing interest probably would not be traumatized, like they might be in any number of torture-porn films released with an R (available for children if an adult accompanies them).

"Blue Valentine" is a really good film, a difficult film but a rewarding one, because of the commitment and skill of its two leads.  Based on this picture, I am interested to view new work by director Derek Cianfrance. I believe this is his first feature, having done a number of documentaries and short films, and studied avant-garde filmmaking under the likes of Stan Brakhage.  (Funny how much Gosling's character resembles Cianfrance!) 


  1. I still haven't decided if I'm going to watch this one or not.

  2. Another great review, Tom! I loved the performances of Gosling and Williams. Both were utterly believable as flawed -- but decent -- human beings whose couplehood history becomes insurmountable. Sad, but poignant filmmaking. I have a feeling Gosling's career is about to soar. This is his breakout role.

  3. Well-done, Tom. I had the honor of seeing this film right after Sundance with Derek Cianfrance himself in attendance. Nice guy, and the first question asked was, "Did you realize that Ryan Gosling based his look off of you?" Apparently, Cianfrance's wife also noticed, saying, "That actor's trying to steal your life."

  4. Very moving review, Tom, nicely capturing the feel of the central relationship.