What a joy it is to start 2011 off on the right foot. In a month that is usually relegated for films that the studios have no faith in (known as “dump month”), I’m delighted to see Blue Valentine, a film that made the festival rounds last year and is now finally seeing a proper release. It’s so good in so many different ways that if I had the mind to do it, I’d be tempted to go back and edit my “Best of the Year” list to include it (because it’s technically a 2010 film). Despite having its DC release in this awkward transition period, which will keep it from landing on any of my year end lists (much like the terrific Crazy Heart), it’s a movie that needs to be seen and I implore you to seek it out.
The movie follows a couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), as they hit the ups and downs in their relationship. It cuts back and forth from the present, where their troubles are persisting, and the past, when their love first blossomed. This non-linear approach helps Blue Valentine strike a perfect balance in tone and pace. It allows us to see how good the two were together while also seeing how they’ve drifted apart.
The beauty in the film lies in the handling of the characters, neither of whom are demonized. While far from perfection, they are both good persons with flaws. Cindy is perhaps a bit selfish and her love for Dean is dissipating while Dean is occasionally quick to anger, though he never violently attacks Cindy, despite one late outburst. In fact, some of his anger is understandable, given a late movie revelation that puts an earlier argument into context. Much of it stems from frustration because his wife, whom he still dearly loves, is failing to reciprocate the feeling. Dean is not a perfect man, but it’s difficult to condemn him because of his genuine love and respect for his family.
In flashback scenes, he even comes off as charming, as does Cindy, and the actors in the roles are stunning together. I can’t recall a time when an onscreen chemistry felt as authentic as it did here. It felt like Gosling and Williams had in actuality been together for many years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hooking up off camera.
To say a movie is a “roller coaster ride of emotion” has become a bit of a movie critic cliché and, indeed, the phrase is thrown around far too often, but there’s simply no other way to describe Blue Valentine. Because of the constant alternations from the past and present, the good times Dean and Cindy have mix with the bad so the joy you feel one moment is immediately followed by an opposing feeling the next. Certain romantic scenes notwithstanding, this is not an optimistic movie about love. It’s not about two people who meet one day, are smitten with each other and live happily ever after. This approaches it more realistically. It’s about what happens when the love you have for someone begins to wane. It’s about coping with the idea that the one person in the world you love with all your heart doesn’t love you back. It’s about a crumbling relationship in its final stages that looked like it was going to last forever.
Blue Valentine is not an easy movie. People prefer to look at love from a certain point of view, but this movie dares to view it from another, one not filled with cutesy happenstances and longing embraces. At one point in the film, Dean expresses his own take on how love is supposed to work, going so far as to directly compare it to the multitudinous amount of romance movies he has seen. Like Dean, many people expect love to be grand and never ending, but the truth is far less encouraging and Blue Valentine never holds back from showing it.
Blue Valentine receives 4.5/5