Ryan Gosling as Dean
Michelle Williams as Cindy
Mike Vogel as Bobby
Reila Aphrodite as Mary
John Doman as Jerry Heller
Ben Shenkman as Sam Feinberg
Faith Wladyka as Frankie Periera
Samii Ryan as Amanda
Anyone who has been married for even a brief period of time can tell you it is hard work, not to be entered into lightly. If you're lucky, you will genuinely like the person you're with fifty percent of the time, and the rest you will only be mildly annoyed by the various and small habits you didn't notice at first but which you will have many, many, many, many hours to experience as the years pass by and the initial light of first love and romance fade away.
That is not the sort of reality Hollywood likes to serve up for our viewing pleasure. As a function of most romantic film plots, marriage is left at a remove, a kind of vague notion stuffed into the over-arching idea of 'happily ever after.' It's the goal the romantic pair is trying to reach, and once they get there the story's over, right? Even Shakespeare knew to end his romances with either a wedding or a funeral, because it's hard to be entertained by the reality married life. It's just too difficult.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle) are certainly finding that out. A young married couple, they jumped into the institution quickly on the romantic belief that if you've got love you can work the rest out. Five years down the road the bloom has come off the rose and whatever reasons they originally had for getting together, it's quickly becoming apparent they're not going to be enough.
I won't lie to you, Derek Cianfrance's feature film debut is often a brutal slog to get through, and not just because of the dark and disturbing sex scene in the second act. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as Cianfrance and his actors confront difficult truths head-on. But the reality of the approach is emotionally draining on a level only a handful of films this year have attempted. "Blue Valentine" is the filmic equivalent of cutting yourself on the leg over and over with a razor blade.
It's also a much needed reminder how difficult and dangerous real life can be, not necessarily to body but to soul, and includes with it the unspoken assertion important decisions really need to be thought through.
It's also a character study of two damaged people, though Dean is left something of a mystery in favor of providing lots of subtext about how Cindy ended up at the point in her life she has reached.
A child of an emotionally abusive father (John Doman), her young life is characterized by flip flops between wild exuberance and deep depression. When she becomes pregnant, though, she has to start making serious decisions about her future at a time in her life when she may be least capable of doing so.
Because "Blue Valentine" is a character study, the real draw is the performances, which are probably the best Williams and Gosling have ever given in both breadth and depth. Rather than tell a straight linear progression, Cianfrance works his narrative from both ends at once, starting near the relationships beginning and end and cutting back and forth between the two without warning.
It's a little disorienting at first, but as the film progresses it becomes extremely effective counter pointing Dean and Cindy's carefree early days with where they end up. Gosling in particular goes through a startling physical transformation from a young idealist theorizing about true love to an out of shape drunk permanently encased in sunglasses and a bad attitude.
Williams work is less noticeable but no less difficult as Cindy begins to bottle up more and more of her feelings the worse things get. The reality of being a young wife and mother is starker than she probably had in mind and a lot of her dreams have been put by the wayside – medical school being replaced with a job as a medical technician, and the like. Gradually, though she doesn't realize it, she is becoming more and more her father until she finally explodes during a visit to a romantic getaway motel in an attempt to rekindle her marriage.
The rest of the film is stripped bare like a Rick Rubin recording, offering little in the way fireworks beyond the raw stripped down emotions on display. I could tag on something trite about the best effects being great actors, but you get the idea.
If you're not into slow, talky dramas with little other than pain to offer you, "Blue Valentine" is probably not the film for you. But if you are, it shouldn't be missed, at least once (although it would be hard viewing more than once). Marriage is difficult stuff and doesn't get its real due in film as much as it should. "Blue Valentine" doesn't exactly show all sides of what marriage is like, but its refusal to shy away from the hard parts and their consequences is as entrancing as it is dark.