(possible spoilers ahead)
I have a lot of respect for this movie. I did going in to it. It's one thing that it's an independent film, about just two characters falling in love, or something like it, and then falling much out of love (or something close to it). It's another that it's getting attention and hopefully being seen by people who can actually enjoy characters who have something to them outside of the usual tropes that come with romance stories. This is not to say Blue Valentine isn't something we haven't seen before: it's a doomed romance tale. And it has some overtones of dysfunction right from the start. For some this will be very tragic. For others put of by the constant (over)improvising, it might be too much of a too-little thing.
For me, Blue Valentine was never dis-engaging. I can have things to nit-pick, and I do, but it's always a work coming from a director, Derek Cianfrance, who wants nothing more than to have two people that we might care about, just a little, and with the story being them. It's the start of the relationship, the start of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) marriage, and the end, the former shown over a couple of months, the latter shown over just one 48 hour period that goes disastrously wrong. Why not show the middle? Would there be much else to show aside from taking care of the kid?
Oh yes, there is a child in the mix, however one of the nice ambiguities is that Cindy, who previously had a dick of a boyfriend who had sex with her unprotected just before she met Dean, doesn't quite know who the father is either, or maybe knows and Dean knows but is fine with it. It's the right thing to do, perhaps, being a father to a kid to support the woman that he loves. At the same time it's also the thing that, arguably, is what throws the biggest monkey wrench into what was a pleasant and un relationship; early on in their courtship, after meeting at a rest home Dean worked at and that Cindy was at to visit her grandmother, we see joking, laughing, singing, dancing, caresses. On a normal level they could have been alright, just what Cindy was looking for after her trouble with the pushy ex Bobby.
But then where would the movie be in its tale? As a doomed-romance tale we need to see this disintigrate before our eyes, and one of the clever things visually (maybe my favorite small-aspect of the film) is when Dean, trying to just get away from everything after a bad incident where their dog dies, makes a call to go away for the night to one of those "Romance Motel" rooms. The interior of the room is a "future" room (or as Tommy Wiseau would say, it's not *A* room, it's *The* room), and it's not the wide open space one might expect with a lover's suite. It's cramped with light blue fluorescent lighting and with the walls looking like aluminum foil, with a cramped bathroom and cramped floors. This gave such a good dimension to bring out for the actors the angst that rises up for the characters, how much from the start Cindy isn't it to it (and hey, can one blame her, she's away from her kid and the dog just died), and how Dean gets upset that she's not into it (and hey, can you blame him, he got this room just for her to drink and fuck and the dog just died)... Yeah.
If I could nitpick about some things it's not so much about feeling sympathy for one character over another or feeling one is worse off than the other- they're a match made under the right emotions at the wrong time- but about some of the improvised acting. I love improv acting, especially when people know how to do it well, and it's hard to find better people than Ryan Gosling or Michelle Williams. But the former actor gets so into it and so intense that he isn't reigned in quite enough by the director; there were times I could sense I knew he was being so natural that it was overtly naturalistic (such as repeating certain words or phrases), which could also be a fault of the director not saying when ti cut.
There were also a few scenes, though short, that seemed to be there to give some character background or development that felt flat, or just abbreviated, and they're both at Cindy's parent's dinner table. Her father is a caricature of paternal stern-aggression that leaves one cold, and then when it's the first dinner with Dean over he relays the basics of his background (janitor father, fled mother, no high school diploma). It felt cursory to me.
What worked best and what brought out the qualities of the characters that resonated was just simple body language, even if it was Gosling playing Dean as a goofy, impulsive kind of guy. I did like that about Gosling's work here, and then later giving some complexity to his situation of being a loving father but a loser at "doing" something more than just sub-blue collar work as a house painter. Michelle Williams is trickier, but that's what I responded to more. Other critics have noted that her character is colder, more of a blank slate or just an outright bitch. It's more complicated by Cindy being a smart girl, someone who could have been a doctor instead of a nurse, and made a choice in her life right in the stirrups of an abortion clinic that affected everything from then on. It comes down to a question of affection over pragmatism, and that for Cindy having a much more solid life than what Dean could give her wasn't enough. "I can't take this anymore," she says to him in their big blow-up break-up scene. Can we?
We're dragged through the ringer of this break-up, and it's fascinating to watch the early scenes to spot if it was just fucked from the start, or if things could have been better. In that sense Blue Valentine is a very romantic movie, in that it romanticizes the past at a very specific point, its barbed quality of reality included, at the point of no return. Maybe my finding it messy or a little overlong in some scenes or just once or twice predictable (the song featured so prominently in the trailer kind of nails things over the head just a bit) is part of the point. And at the center are two nakedly honest performances, ones that could only come in a work that allows for character study. Hollwyood wouldn't know what to do with it... scratch that, Weinstein Boys did, but that's another story altogether. It's not an "enjoyable" movie, but if you need depressing and heart-rending... and the bickering married neighbors aren't home, this is the next best thing.
Biggest downside though...No mention of this: