I enjoyed Blue Valentine much the way I "enjoyed" Winter's Bone, which is to say I felt slightly masochistic at the end, unable to shake images and scenes of a floundering marriage that are chilling and haunting and uncomfortable in ways rarely attempted these days. There is a reason for this of course—people go to movies to escape the very things that Blue Valentine and Winter's Bone magnify to a degree that can suck all the air out of a theater, unwilling to let anyone exhale for two hours. It's tense, it's frustrating, but in the right hands, under the right direction, it also can approach brilliance.
And the similarities between Wnter's Bone and Blue Valentine are clear, not only in tone but in dialogue, pacing and barren cinematography. But whereas the latter followed a 17-year-old teenager on a quest to find her father in the poverty-stricken Ozarks, Blue Valentine dives full force into the inner-workings of one relationship in working-class Pennsylvania. Both films have the unnerving quality of making the rest of the world disappear, camera lens tight on its subjects and unwilling to pan out. Awkward moments in Blue Valentine last 30 seconds longer than you expect them to, while the most painful scenes (like in an abortion clinic) last even longer. The film refuses to engage in easy outs or to camouflage moments of anguish with a sad song or quick cut away. These are all admirable traits—just consider yourself warned. This may be the worst first-date film of the year.
As storylines go, there are no real surprises in Blue Valentine. We begin at the end—or at least the beginning of the very end—of a marriage that has obviously been teetering on a precipice for some time. That a child is involved only makes the situation that much more sad and complicated. The film takes place over less than three days, but much of the movie is spent examining the beginnings of the relationship from five or so years earlier when Dean (Ryan Gosling) meets Cindy (Michelle Williams) in a chance encounter at a nursing home.
These flashbacks to Point A, which account for almost half of the film, allow for an understanding of how we arrived at Point B that is rare in most relationship movies. There is no invented backstory for Dean and Cindy—there is actual story, and it's a moving one. Both early 20-somethings come from troubled families, but while Cindy has dreams of graduating from college and going to medical school, Dean seems happy to stroll through life as the talented underachiever with zero ambition. But he's a good man who believes in love at first sight—and he loves Cindy enough to marry her despite the very real possibility that the child she is pregnant with may not be his.
As enthralled with each other as they may be, it's also easy to see the seeds of an oncoming train wreck, and when Blue Valentine returns us to the present day those seeds have surfaced in the form of mutual resentment and frustration that is, quite simply, hard to watch. Cindy can't stand that the hipster slacker she fell in love with won't even try to tap into his potential. He's happy working as a house painter because it allows him to focus his energy on being a husband and father. He just doesn't understand the point of ambition. She criticizes him for having a job where it's okay to have a beer at 8 a.m. He sees it as a perk. Gosling, who has made the leap from a poor-man's Edward Norton to one of the best young actors around, is good in the flashbacks and even better playing Dean five years later—hairline receding, cigarette in mouth, utterly confused and stressed about a collapsing marriage.
And Williams, who has now received Oscar nominations for this movie and Brokeback Mountain, is as good here when talking and arguing with Dean as she is during the many moments of painful silence. As impossible as it may be to will someone to change and to become a different person, it sure isn't for lack of trying on Cindy's part. She stares at him—often when he's not looking—with eyes that ask what went wrong and is this is a fixable situation?
But what is it she really wants him to be? Dean is a faithful husband and by the looks of it a good and loving father. He stuck with Cindy when many men might have bailed. This may be the hardest question of all, and one without an answer that makes any logical sense. In other words, it's like a lot of relationships. Some survive. Others do not. In this film, we already kind of know the answer before getting into the how and why. That Blue Valentine delves into that territory with such honesty is not only courageous, but also exceedingly rare.
Blue Valentine continues at the Wilma Theatre.