Reviewed by James Owen
I watched John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” back-to-back, and I think I need to see a marriage counselor. Or become one. These films investigate two different marital stress points: “Blue Valentine” examines a marriage buckling under the pressure of the working class; “Rabbit Hole” looks at a grounded, well-off couple rocked by tragedy. “Blue Valentine” details exactly how the couple falls prey to the world around them. “Rabbit Hole” is less about the world-at-large and more about the world of this couple. For these reasons, “Blue Valentine is tragic—the couple is hopeless against things they can’t control. “Rabbit Hole” is more hopeful—the couple has the means to take the time to get themselves together.
In “Blue Valentine,” Dean and Cindy’s marriage barrels through the rural Pennsylvania landscape like that train from “Unstoppable”: perpetually unstable and poised to run off the tracks and blow up. From the time the movie leaves the station, this relationship feels doomed. Dean (Ryan Gosling) is less mature than the couple’s five-year-old adorable but screwed-up daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). His M.O. is to make bad situations worse just by opening his mouth. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is the mature one, working a stressful job at the local hospital to try to stabilize their lives. Perhaps this level of responsibility has alienated her from her family; perhaps she is just cold and distant by nature. Either way, they are a toxic mix. They want to salvage things, and Dean, by nature, is more pro-active: he thinks a gift card to a themed adult hotel and a lot of vodka will do the trick. The pent-up sexual tension gets in the way of his best-laid plans. And the audience thinks, seriously, he thought that would work?
Spoiler: It doesn’t. But there’s more to the film than just wrenching family drama; Cianfrance’s direction is designed to a certain end. For example, their house has been conspicuously remodeled in different eras; Gosling doesn’t clean all the paint from underneath is fingernails, both details suggesting an inability to see even the simplest tasks all the way through. Cianfrance creates a different look when the film cuts back to their whirlwind courtship—he doesn’t considerably brighten the film into a fantastical flashback, but there are pops of color. Because they revel in the details of dreariness, Williams and Gosling don’t go overboard with laying on the sentiment. Usually, tragic romances try to pinpoint what went wrong and who’s to blame, but “Blue Valentine” is constructed to a different point: Some relationships are irreparably doomed from the start.
So, yes, “Blue Valentine” is a terribly depressing movie. Despite its artistic accomplishments, narratively, the film feels like a series of horrifically awkward moments strewn together. Instead of creating a complicated story, it succeeds in wearing the audience out. The question is whether making me feel bad makes “Blue Valentine” an effective film? I could feel bad watching Sarah MacLachlan talk about rescue dogs and feel bad, but good cinema it ain’t.
In the end, the film paints Dean and Cindy as victims of their surroundings. They are the Rural Poor, mired in poverty because no matter how hard they work, they barely stay afloat. They’re in rural Pennsylvania; what are they supposed to do when the industrial structure of the town rusts in the backdrop? Even if one were available, the film suggests, without explicitly telling us, that Dean just can’t hold down a job. This is not the economy’s fault, but a conspiracy of his own failings and the marketplace. There’s no solution; all we can do is watch in horror.
As Mr. Himes would now ask, is this simply exploitative of lower-class travails or something cinematic? Certainly, the two leads make the film worth watching. Gosling dives into the physicality of his part, adopting a receding hairline and tinted eye glasses. His is the more caustic role, so he plays up the drama of the character. Williams is more reserved, creating an invested sadness in the way she moves and shifts her eyes. This is not an obviously good performance, one that screams for attention in the usual Oscar-y way. But it is a performance to study, and we can’t help but wonder how much of her personal tragedy is invested in Cindy. She earns her nomination but, in a role so dependent on her co-star, it’s too bad Gosling didn’t get one as well. As for the film, other than pity, there’s not much to feel here.