Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine is a love story for our times - a film which examines the elusive nature of love and the weighty burdens of commitment, while also examining the complexity of modern gender roles and new attitudes about the bonds of marriage and family.
Best of all, the film manages to feel both timely and timeless, without ever going so far as to be preachy.
The story centers around Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple living in small town Pennsylvania with their small daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Dean is a high school dropout who makes his living laboring as a blue collar worker - he has many creative and artistic talents, but no drive to be anything more than a good father, husband and provider. Cindy, on the other hand, is a girl who has always had ambition - she's been studying medicine for years and is a dedicated nurse on the verge of a promising new career opportunity.
The film jumps back in forth across the timeline of Cindy and Dean's relationship, sketching a portrait of who they were as individuals first, how they eventually met, fell in love, and ultimately began to face the hardships of marriage. Between flashbacks, the film follows modern-day Cindy and Dean, as they attempt to rekindle the flickering ember of their relationship before it goes out.
Director Derek Cianfrance has just one prior feature film on his resume, with most of his work behind the camera being a few short films and a handful of TV documentaries. It's that latter body of work that serves Blue Valentine so well: if nothing else, the film is a wonderful documentary study of one couple's relationship, and Cianfrance knows (like any good documentarian should) exactly what moments to highlight, and all the subtleties of thought and feeling that need to be acknowledged onscreen. And so, like a good, experienced documentarian, Cianfrance simply pulls back and observes, rather than trying to dictate.
Of course that voyeuristic approach would be wasted if the director didn't have two skilled performers in the lead roles, providing strong emotional subject matter worth observing. Gosling and Williams are arguably two of the best actors of their generation, and here they put on a serious tour de force of human interaction and emotion - the new war of the sexes.
Both Cindy and Dean come across as fully-formed, richly complex people. There is no "good guy" or "bad guy" and gone are many of the past stereotypes and flat, two-dimensional tropes you find in so many other romantic dramas. Dean may be a rugged, street-smart guy who drinks a little bit too much, but he's also a good father, a loving and dedicated husband, with shades of an artist coloring his soul. Cindy is a bit selfish, a bit cynical and a bit of a mess as a woman, but she's also smart, ambitious, strong and a dedicated wife and mother.
It's the fact that both wife and husband are in their own ways "good" (if not flawed) people that makes Blue Valentine so refreshingly complex and interesting. The notion that something in love can go wrong, even if nobody does wrong, is one that movies rarely dare to explore; having "the cheater" or "the beater" tends to be a much easier route to take. This film has the lofty ambition of questioning how a love that starts off so sweet can over time ferment into something so bitter. And here, it's a question worth exploring.
The writers and the actors work together to approach these characters in a way that also addresses the shifts in modern gender roles, and how those changes have altered the modern family dynamic. Cianfrance co-wrote the script for Blue Valentine along with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, and included in the story is a particularly great subplot that juxtaposes Cindy and Dean's marriage to that of Cindy's aging parents, who come from a generation where the commitment of marriage tended to stay unbroken, no matter how heavily "for worse" outweighed "for better." Subtle touches like this elevate the story to a level which speaks to the dilemmas faced by many young adults today, struggling with questions of who they want to be vs. who they are expected to be, as families, couples, and/or individuals.
Gosling and Williams follow the writers into this unexplored terrain, and some of Blue Valentine's rawest and admittedly realest moments come from the arguments the couple have about what it means for Dean to "be a man" and how much of one he is or is not, based on the choices he's made in life and what kind of attitude he has. While I would have liked to see some of what is implied about Cindy and the woman she is explored at greater depth, Williams' fantastically subtle and thickly-layered performance are enough to keep you thinking.
I must say that the MPAA initially giving this film an NC-17 rating is ridiculous. In terms of nudity, Blue Valentine is very conservative with what or how much it shows, and not one moment of sex or skin is offensive in any way. To me, the rating controversy only serves as a stamp of authenticity; the "offending" scene in the film didn't ruffle feathers because it was gross or gratuitous - it ruffled feathers because what it depicts is so spot-on, almost too real for comfort. This is a movie that will get under a lot of people's skin, for sure - but only because of how well they'll be able to relate.
In the end, Blue Valentine hits all the right chords to keep you engaged with its characters and invested in their journey. The movie offers no real answers - it doesn't try to preach to us about love, life, commitment and how they sometimes become entangled. Rather, this is a film that motivates us to examine our own beliefs about those very subjects, and maybe, hopefully, possibly, find a way to conquer the challenges of love and life for ourselves.