There’s an achingly sad transition midway through Blue Valentine. We’ve been following the courtship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). He’s a sweet, feckless college dropout making a living as a moving man. Cindy, more practical and ambitious (she wants to become a doctor), is gun-shy from too many bad affairs. They’re wandering the nighttime streets of Brooklyn on a date, and they pause in a lighted storefront where the ardent Dean strums on a small guitar and serenades her. She’s touched by the passion in his voice and begins, sexily and a little awkwardly, to dance for him. In this lovely, spontaneous moment the movie becomes flushed with the sweetness and promise of young love.
The movie then cuts to the present time. Dean and Cindy, now unhappily married with a daughter, have checked into the hideously metallic “future room” of a sex hotel, where the ever-hopeful Dean—heavier now, his hairline receding—is vainly attempting to romance his unhappy, withholding wife. But she’s had enough of Dean’s drinking, his complacency, his refusal to make anything of his life. The contrast between then and now is heartbreaking.
The death of love is a painful thing to watch, and Derek Cianfrance, the director and co-writer of Blue Valentine, wants it to hurt. His raw, sexually and emotionally intimate movie starts at the sour tail end of a marriage and jumps back and forth between 24 hours of the couple’s present life (shot in static, often claustrophobic compositions on a digital camera) and the hopeful early days of their relationship (shot in handheld 16mm images). The effect of these recurring juxtapositions is poignant but problematic. Thematically, Blue Valentine keeps repeating the same unhappy message over and over, and you may feel your patience tested.
Yet the movie keeps hooking you back in, because Williams and Gosling are so damn good. Neither seems capable of an emotionally dishonest moment. He has the more volatile, flashy part—and his volatility becomes truly terrifying as Dean’s desperation comes to a head at the doctor’s office where Cindy works as a nurse. But Williams’s work is no less stunning: watch her face when she decides not to go through with an abortion (Dean marries her, knowing she’s carrying another man’s child)—the anguish is bone-deep and electrifying. The frustrating thing about Cianfrance’s pungent but draining movie (which owes an obvious debt to John Cassavetes) is that its many memorable, deeply felt scenes don’t quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. See it for Gosling and Williams, but be advised: if you take a date, you’ll be sorry.
>> NEXT: Casino Jack: The One … for Tea Party Members