Some movies start at the beginning and go to the end. Some movies start at the end and work back to the beginning. Some start in the middle and bounce around in time.
But Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” takes the daring step of starting at the end – a marriage on the downward slide to divorce – and then takes us back to the courtship and wedding. And it leaves out everything in between.
Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine” relies on the viewer to decide what took place to move this couple – Dean and Cindy – from one extreme to the other. They have a daughter at the end (whose arrival figures in their decision to get married) – and both are older, more harried, less capable of ignoring the rest of the world.
How did they get there? It doesn’t matter. Cianfrance’s film is a marvel of raw, real acting that puts you right into the lives of two people – initially happy, ultimately unhappy – going into great detail about these characters while only sketching their stories.
As we first see them, they are a tired and dissatisfied couple. Dean is sleeping in a recliner, though he downplays what it means to the couple’s young daughter, Frankie. Their day gets off to a bad start: The dog is missing. Their work lives obviously are causing tension. They can barely speak to each other. They leave Frankie with her grandfather and go off for a night in a motel that is meant to bring them back together.
When Cindy is reminded of Bobby (Mike Vogel), her boyfriend before Dean, the film suddenly is jolted into the past. Cindy is still a college student, still involved with Bobby – though he’s a bully. And Dean is just a lonely guy working for a moving company. On separate tracks, they wind up at the same destination: a home for seniors where Dean is visiting an old man whose belongings he’s moved from New York and Cindy is visiting her grandmother.
The contrast between the openness they had when they met and the closed-off emotions they display in the present is stark. It’s as if they are struggling to remember who they were and what drew them together. Then we see it and it all seems so effortless. Where did that ease go? Why did it disappear?
That’s what Cianfrance leaves to the imagination, allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Certainly, some of the tensions – particularly between Dean and Cindy’s father – are already there. Dean’s easy-going joy seems so buoyant and infectious that it’s hard to imagine it ever leaving.
Yet that’s the case in the scenes of the film’s present: Dean seems beaten, defeated by life or perhaps just by the fact that life has not gone his way. Cindy mostly seems angry and disappointed: Her life was supposed to be something else, though the flashbacks to their early days don’t reveal just what she thought it might become.
Williams and Gosling are startlingly good here – unfettered, in touch with emotions that were obviously painful to access, in the moment in ways that make this seem more like a documentary than a feature film. Again, the word that comes to mind is raw – as in unfiltered, but also painfully scraped and unprotected. There’s nothing feel-good about “Blue Valentine” that the feel-bad parts can’t undermine.
Which doesn’t sound like praise but it is. “Blue Valentine” is a crushing viewing experience and one that demands your attention.