It’s that most familiar-seeming of domestic dramas: the story of a broken marriage unspooling into crisis before our eyes. It boasts two excellent performances from two attractive people paid to give excellent performances. It crosscuts between the couple’s early courtship and present-day derailment; meanwhile, we’re treated to an adorable but personality-free toddler, a vengeful ex-boyfriend and several raw, nonerotic sexual encounters (not even close to NC-17 material unless your blood curdles at the sight of a man giving his wife 10-15 seconds of oral pleasure).
At the State
The Weinstein Company
In short, “Blue Valentine” is exactly what it wants to be: an ultra-low-budget cautionary tale about the follies of love, a film imminently disposable by its very nature, with a shelf life only as long as the gap until the next prestige picture about a marital struggle. It will prove illuminating for some viewers and unremarkable for others; it will be no one’s favorite movie.
Yet the film boasts a noteworthy visual style — the low budget having freed writer-director Derek Cianfrance (“Brother Tied”) and cinematographer Andrij Parekh (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) to make refreshing, effective choices. Even when Dean (Ryan Gosling, “Half Nelson”) and Cindy (the Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain”) occupy the same physical space, they rarely share the same frame; we’ll see soft-lens close-ups of the sides of their faces, one at a time in the blue-tinged light of a love motel’s “future room,” heightening the sense of divide between the two. When the film falls back on digital video shaky-cam only two scenes later, it’s akin to a concert where the singer follows up a rollicking new track with his cheesy, overplayed hit from the ’90s.
The couple’s two halves, Dean and Cindy, merit our sympathy, though not in equal measure. We root for them throughout the first two acts of the film on the strength of their performances. In the flashbacks, we see Cindy driven to attend medical school, while high school dropout Dean, a lifter for a moving company who meets her purely by chance, is driven only to be with her. He serenades her with a performance of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” that probably fits the movie’s theme a little too closely, but nevertheless possesses mysterious heart-warming power.
Dean’s certainly a handful, though. One could make a strong argument that by the end, he is much more at fault for the couple’s destruction than Cindy. Consider: Dean is overly emotional, childlike and brash in his actions, selfish in the way he drags Cindy to a sleazy love motel the night before she’s on call because he can’t get over the death of their dog. Throughout all of this, Cindy’s chief crime seems to be her inability to communicate her emotions properly — a problem to be sure, but it doesn’t manifest itself as a breaking point the way Dean’s actions do.
It’s difficult to say whether this uneven distribution of flaws was the Cianfrance’s intention, but it comes off as sloppy characterization on his part. After all, why root for Dean and Cindy to work out their issues when we agree with Dean’s self-patronizing admission that he’s not good enough for her?
There is some material in the script that holds promise — mainly Cindy’s conversations with her frail grandmother, which hints at the dark undercurrent of loveless relationships through America’s generations. But by the third act, when the naturalistic, bubbling tension between Dean and Cindy boils over into soap-opera histrionics, we no longer have that tie to a larger thematic message. There are only two ways this story can end now: sadly or ambiguously. And neither option will distinguish “Blue Valentine” from the venerable domestic-struggle stable of squids, whales and revolutionary roads.