The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Blue Valentine was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Acting as the antithesis of the normal Hollywood romance, Blue Valentine is a stunningly difficult movie to watch. Following the path of a couple (Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams) in the painful, desperate final days of their marriage, supplemented with long flashbacks to the way they meet and fall in love, the film echoes Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible with its ability to show the good times of characters that we know are now miserable and broken. It’s definitely not as extreme or upsetting as Irreversible, but it packs a mean punch.
Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) are a married couple hovering around the age of thirty. He’s a housepainter and she’s a nurse. They have a cute little girl named Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Neither Dean nor Cindy seems particularly happy, although they both obviously love their daughter. Cindy is growing increasingly frustrated by Dean’s lack of ambition. She complains to him that he is so talented at any number of things, he should want to do more with his life than paint people’s houses. Dean sees nothing wrong with his job because it allows him plenty of time to be a dad and a husband. Cindy sees this excuse as a copout for Dean to remain an immature boy in a man’s body. This disagreement is only one symptom of the numerous problems afflicting their marriage.
Meanwhile, director Derek Cianfrance supplies glimpses of the couple in happier times as they wax philosophical about what it means to be in love (Dean is more romantic in his views and Cindy more clinical in her skepticism), meet, begin dating, fall in love, and eventually marry. It’s among the cruelest tricks that Cianfrance pulls that the worse things get for Dean and Cindy in the present, the happier they get in the flashbacks. As frustration and contempt spill forth from the couple over behaviors the other exhibits, we are shown how those same traits attracted them to each other in the first place.
As a dramatic device, Cianfrance uses the flashback structure to maximum effect, but that technique becomes one of the weaknesses of the film as it becomes a crutch to support an occasionally shaky script.
I’ve always acknowledged that all films — both narrative and documentary — are manipulative. It’s the great filmmakers who can manipulate an audience and have the audience not only not notice that they’ve been manipulated, but also to have them not care when they realize the fact after the viewing. Oftentimes, those great directors have a great script to assist them in pulling off this emotional magic trick. This is where Blue Valentine goes from possibly being great to merely being good.
While the present-day scenes are well-written with painfully believable dialogue, many of the flashbacks scenes are too transparent with their plot twists and on-the-nose, “indie-movie dialogue.”
What do I mean by “indie-movie dialogue”?
You’ve heard this dialogue in a thousand indies over the last twenty years. Painfully labored conversations about nothing that is supposed to illuminate great truths about the characters involved, but in reality, they’re just conversations about nothing. The flashback scenes are loaded with conversations that are supposed to make the audience gasp at the ironic nature of what these moments will mean to Dean and Cindy years later. The performances by Gosling and Williams are good enough to convey all of this information and heartbreaking character depth through their faces and actions. They don’t need a ham-fisted line of dialogue about not wanting to end up in a loveless marriage to make their relationship seem that much more tragic.
Which brings me around to the work by the leads. Much has been written about the work Williams does in this film. Everything you’ve read or heard is true — she’s phenomenal in a role that could have very easily been turned into the villain. But Gosling is the one who shows a true breakthrough. Convincingly aging his character over nearly ten years time, he is a surprising force of nature in this film. Likable, frustrating, handsome, and eventually creepy, he never shows a hint of vanity or hits a false note. His Dean is a man who is content with who is he is and doesn’t understand why others can’t accept that, especially his wife. Just as Williams avoids the easy choice of letting Cindy become a villain, he never allows the overly sensitive Dean become a victim.
If only the script had measured up to the performances and Cianfrance’s stylish, but never showy direction, I might be writing a four star review. But what is present is powerful and brutal enough to warrant attention. It’s worth seeing for the work of Gosling and Williams, but be sure to have your happy pills ready to go when you leave the theater. You’re going to need them.
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