Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blue Valentine

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" may as well be the tag line for the relentlessly depressing, unforgivingly bleak Blue Valentine. The only funny thing about it is how viewers will watch thinking there's no way what happens to this young couple could possibly happen to them. Brutally honest and realistic to the point that it looks and feels like an improvised documentary, the film is about two characters shaped and defined by their past experiences, helplessly hurting one another. Flashing between past and present to track how a relationship implodes, this could have easily been titled (500) Days of Hell, with even the smallest, fleeting moments of happiness (and there are some) tempered by the knowledge of where we know things will end up. Yet strangely, I found it doesn't leave a completely depressing mark, maybe because there's relief in encountering a film that's truthful, or at least tells a side of the truth we're rarely exposed to in big studio pictures. But it's really about the astonishing performances of the two leads, one of whom was previously the best current working actor not to have a great movie to his name and the other a rapidly rising actress extending her winning streak.

Cross-cutting between timelines the story follows young, working-class couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) who meet in their mid-twenties but by their early thirties, married and with a daughter, look stressed enough to have lived a thousand lifetimes. Dean, a high-school dropout with no professional ambitions to speak of, temporarily works as a mover when he first meets and falls in love at first sight with Cindy, a pre-med student living with her parents and caring for her grandmother in rural Pennsylvania. Pregnant with her ex-boyfriend's (Mike Vogel) baby they rush into marriage within weeks and the early signs of trouble would be obvious to anyone but them. Coming from a broken home, Dean finds himself unprepared for this role of father and husband while Cindy, whose own parents' marriage set a model for emotional abuse, is no more ready than he. Interestingly, we glimpse only the early details of their courtship interspersed with what appears to be the final days of their marriage so there's actually a lot left open for interpretation. But due to the performances of the actors, it feels like we know everything there is, and sometimes even more than we'd like in many emotionally uncomfortable scenes.

In an outrage, this film was inexplicably slapped with an NC-17 rating before it's release and the studio actually had to appeal to earn an 'R,' proving true the worst assumptions that the MPAA sees nothing wrong with decapitating people with a power saw, but one borderline non-consensual sex scene is off limits, even if it reveals key truths about the story and its characters. Just the fact that a term like "borderline non-consensual" has to be used apprehensively to describe the scene is proof enough it needed to be included, if only for the important discussion it could inspire. Slaving over this project for over six years, writer/director Derek Cianfrance gave up his entire director's fee to help fund the film and even went so far as to literally have Gosling and Williams live together before and during filming. Much of the dialogue was heavily improvised to the point the actors could be considered co-writers and supposedly Cianfrance even wanted to film their past and present scenes years apart to add to the realism until budgetary constraints prevented it. It turns out that wasn't necessary since the actors sell the transformations as well as any real passage of time could.

Michelle Williams plays younger Cindy as youthful, innocent and vibrant in the past scenes but in the present embodies a woman who's still young in appearance but definitely not youthful in spirit.  Now with the demeanor of someone far older and more resentful, she's been emotionally pulverized by the years spent with the guy she thought she loved at one point. Defeated and drained of whatever optimism we glimpsed in the flashback scenes, Williams' mannerisms to convey it are so subtle it's almost impossible to believe Academy voters were observant enough to nominate her for Best Actress. But they were. And in doing that she joins only a handful of child or teen stars to not only survive, but carve out a successful big screen career by working hard and making smart choices.

Ryan Gosling hasn't made nearly as many smart choices and has often been the best thing in middling movies like the Notebook, Half-Nelson, Fracture and Lars and the Real Girl. This is finally up to his talent level and his transformation as Dean ends up being almost as much physical as emotional. With thinning hair, a pot belly and a mustache he manages to not only look even older than his character's age suggests but believably chart the devolution of this hopeful romantic into a sad sack loser with a drinking problem. Williams and Gosling elicit empathy for both and in conquering the difficult task of playing the same characters only a few important years apart, their biggest acting triumph is still giving us glimpses of their past selves, despite everything they end up putting each other through.

Far from a date movie, this is another one of those anti-romantic films that could tempt to audiences to take sides. Whether it's men siding with Dean, the women with Cindy, or vice versa, it doesn't really make a difference because the course of the story is so real and the script so authentic that you almost get the impression no one's at fault and the relationship was doomed to fail from the start. Even happier times end up seeming tragically sad in hindsight. A pre-marriage scene on the street with a ukelele strumming Dean singing as Cindy tap dances contrasts harshly with a post-marriage scene of a him crashing Cindy's workplace in a drunken rage that's so tension-filled I was waiting anxiously for permission to take a breath.

The argument that this is just another depressing independent film about working-class people making each other miserable only holds water until you consider the alternatives. Many mainstream movies gloss over discussion-worthy topics like this to send audiences home happy and let the box office receipts roll in. While there's definitely a place for films like that, there are way too many poorly written and realized ones. There's something to be said for doing things on your own terms and the passion Cianfrance put into the project is evident in every scene and the performances he got from his two actors. Blue Valentine may be depressing, but it leaves you thinking, and is harshly realistic enough to be viewed as a warning to those who haven't carefully considered the weight an actual commitment carries.

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