Blue Valentine is a devastating portrait of the disintegration of a marriage, a slow-motion car crash where you see things inevitably spinning out of control but are unable to stop the tragic tableau unfolding before you.
Whatever love Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) had between them is gone. Although they’ve made a home together and are raising a precious little girl, the stresses of their life have taken their toll. Cindy’s dream of being a doctor has been reduced down to a job as a nurse, while the ambitionless Dean seems content with his job as a housepainter. They both know that their marriage is in trouble, but neither know what to do to fix things. In desperation, Dean books them a room in what could be politely described as a “honeymoon motel” with the hopes that they can reconnect on any level.
But as we watch them make a last, fumbling grasp at saving their marriage, the film flashes us back to five years earlier, showing us their chance meeting, courtship and then hasty marriage. Oddly enough, many of these beats can be found in typical Hollywood romantic comedies, but here they are played for a sweet realism, not the cloyingly cute tone endemic to that genre. And given what happens to Dean and Cindy, it is hard not to think that maybe writer/director Derek Cianfrance is critiquing if not outright rejecting the notion of the Hollywood happy ending.
The contrast between the couple then and now is stark and at times jolting, leaving the audience to wonder what happened between the two. While Cianfrance doesn’t show us the intervening years directly, we can make some good guesses as to why things fell apart the way that they did from what we do learn about the pair and their upbringings.
But for all the strength of Blue Valentine‘s script, it is the performances of Gosling and Williams that deliver the emotional heft of the story. The pair manages to simultaneously create a marvelous chemistry in the flashback scenes and an agonizing estrangement in the present day portion of the film. Williams continues to show that she was one of the most underrated actresses working today as she injects into Cindy’s inability to fully articulate the anger and frustration she feels at how her life has overwhelmed her a raw energy. Gosling’s Dean comes across as deeply conflicted, his male ego under attack whenever Cindy tries to voice her complaints to him. The two create a self-sustaining loop of pain from which they can not escape and which is heartbreaking to watch.