A tragic before-and-after tale of a relationship gone wrong, as portrayed by an acting powerhouse duo.
BLUE VALENTINE is a sad, dark tale tracing the crumbling relationship between Dean and Cindy, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The movie shifts back and forth in time, from their giddy Brooklyn-based courtship to five or six years later in rural Pennsylvania as parents to a six year old. Both actors are Academy Award-nominated, and both should be nominated again for their work here. Williams is my bet for a BestActress Oscar win for her lovelorn, swept-off-her-feet young bride turned wounded and angry, ultimately hopeless working mom. Gosling’s tough-talking Dean morphs from handsome, charming and mysterious to a lost and all too vulnerable soul, eyes hidden, unkempt and balding. In both cases, all smiles transition to fleeting or no smiles at all.
In the chronologically latter half of their story, which is where BLUE VALENTINE both begins and ends, Dean insists on a romantic night out at a dumpy motel, and Cindy is left with no choice but to give in. He reserves the establishment’s comically ugly “Future Room,” bathed in unflattering neon blue light and decorated with fake gizmos, mirrors, a wall-sized moon photo and spinning bed. The childlike Dean finds it all delightful; the more sophisticated Cindy reacts as most of us would – with dismay - but tolerates it nonetheless. They both commence drinking with dedication. But despite some genuinely romantic moments on this fateful night, their contempt for each other comes to the surface after a series of strange, drunken moments of canoodling on the motel floor, and Cindy later leaves him passed out in the bathroom.
Cindy and Dean are good people but find themselves in different places in their lives – something both seem to recognize but only he is unwilling and unable to acknowledge. While their contrasting outlooks and socioeconomic backgrounds weren’t an issue early on, those factors clearly pose real-life obstacles in their later lives, as both her devotion to nursing and his apathy toward minimum wage jobs du jour grow. His laissez-faire bachelorhood in New York worked out fine, but that aimlessness and refusal to grow up carry consequences later as a husband and father. When the younger Dean meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, you sense that Cindy’s father recognizes this contrast in ambition. And while Dean’s relationship with their little girl, who they both love fiercely, is endearing, he relates to her as more of a playmate than a dad; Cindy has to do all the actual raising, it seems.
The young couple’s budding romance is sweet and recognizable however, Dean patiently chipping away at Cindy’s frosty exterior, trying to make her laugh during a chance encounter on a bus. And it’s aww shucks adorable when Cindy does quaint little marionette dance to his ukulele ballad, Dean crooning comically. But soon Cindy learns she’s pregnant by her ex- boyfriend, a macho fireman played by a convincing Mike Vogel. She decides at the last minute that she can’t endure an abortion, and despite Dean’s initial reservations he embraces the child as his own.
While sweet-natured at heart, Dean possesses a temper made dangerous by alcohol - the more so as he gets older - and the tensions between them in waning days of their marriage finally explode in a cringe-inducing scene at the office where Cindy works. Dean never lays a hand on Cindy throughout their relationship, but he does assault her boss, a sleazy doctor played by Ben Shenkman. Dean’s dangerous could not contrast more with the sobbing broken-hearted man we’re presented with at the end. The neighbors’ fireworks in the closing scene blend into a stirring credits sequence, images of the doomed couple illuminated in the firecrackers’ booming silhouettes.
While the film is not a happy one, the acting is masterful, and your interest never flags as you’re continually challenged to piece together Cindy and Dean’s journey from ecstatic beginnings to plainly dreadful results. The dialogue is discomfortingly honest (most of all on that fateful evening in the motel, emotions stripped bare in the harsh blue light), and the gray winter days and often washed-out interiors shot in a shaky cam style lend a decidedly unglamorous believability to what’s onscreen. BLUE VALENTINE often isn’t pretty, but such can also be said of life, and love.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, Mike Vogel
Opens in select theatres Dec. 29th