Sunday, January 16, 2011

Blue Valentine

"Blue Valentine," in its looping of the joyous past and the violently sad present, ends up being much more shattering than it would have been if it had gone linearly from point A to point B. Also, by placing the present before the past (i.e. using flashbacks instead of flashforwards), we see (to use the wording of a character) the couple the film follows at their worst before we see them at their best. Although the film's setup (a seemingly aimless 20-minute section) is a bit long and the staggering of time is a bit awkward, both are ultimately essential to the film.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) was, when he met Cindy (Michelle Williams), a type not unlike George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life." By the end of the film, he's like Bailey if he hadn't snapped out of his downward spiral. He's a drunk who can barely function, who manages to be a pretty good father but a terrible spouse.

Cindy is nearing the end of her rope with him, so he decides to book a parents' night out at a motel. This gives them some one-on-one time, which is not a good idea at this point in their marriage, suffice to say. The film's title is apparently a reference to the dominant color of the room in which they stay, which illuminates the action in a sad candor.

We come to learn, through the past, that Dean was the driving force in the relationship. He saw her for the first time in a nursing home and pursued her from there. Cindy is coming off of a hard time with a college wrestler (Mike Vogel), but she responds to Dean's self-assertion (he claims that he'll never die). What develops is a courtship not unlike the ones in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the "Before Sunrise" diptych - it's one that you'll remember. But whereas those films have uplift and thus outward appeal, this one is sad and conclusive.

Gosling is tremendous in this film, giving perhaps the year's best male performance. His acting rarely if ever actually feels like acting. In my opinion, it's his Oscar to lose (which, of course, he will, to either Colin Firth or Jesse Eisenberg, who are not undeserving). Williams is similarly outstanding, playing Cindy as distraught and desolate, as well as delightfully sunny. I also admire the script by director Derek Cianfrance (who, as has been speculated, looks very similar to Gosling, or vice-versa), Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis. Though it is sometimes sudsy and flawed, it has some disturbing exposition (for example, how it has Cindy tell a child molester joke and goes on to reveal her prematurely sexual past) and natural-sounding writing. The much-mentioned cinematography by Andrij Parekh is also noteworthy. And the soundtrack, which has also been much remarked upon, is good, while the music by Grizzly Bear is not really anything to write home about. (edit: When talking about "the music by Grizzly Bear", I was referring to the instrumental stuff. The band's songs, including "Shift" and "Alligator," which I didn't know were theirs at the time, I liked a lot.)

Even though the film does have a large amount of sexuality (some it, as has been said, disconcerting), I'm glad that the film moved down from an NC-17 to an R. It may not be put together completely smoothly (I'm not sure how I felt about the overall editing), but that doesn't mean a ton when you take note of how engaging, endearing, and crushing the movie is as a whole. B+

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