Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams do career-best work in 'Blue Valentine'
Marriage and love are not the same thing, and one is not enough to guarantee the other, no matter what we want or think we deserve.
I can honestly say that in my nearly 40 years alive, the single most complex, frustrating, terrifying, rewarding, and influential relationship I've had with anyone is the one I have with my wife. Every marriage is different, offering different reasons for the union between the two people, and every marriage comes with its own built-in pitfalls and stumbling blocks. No one can truly understand or judge a marriage from the outside, and even the people in the marriage are often hard-pressed to fully explain it to themselves.
I was thinking about this earlier when I noticed, of all things, my Facebook "relationship" status that just says "Drew is married." What does that really tell anyone about the emotional rollercoaster ride that I'm on as I deal with issues of money, children, career, intimacy, honesty, communication, passion, language, culture, travel, and the future on a daily basis? What does that simple phrase tell you about our joys, our sorrows, our highs, our lows, our wants, our needs, or our shared history? Nothing. And yet marriage is all of that and more.
For Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), marriage is a journey that seems to be nearing an end, and in a narrative that bounces from past to present, from start to finish, from cause to effect, director Derek Cianfrance does an expert job of charting the way love waxes and wanes and the incredible difficulty of making it out of any marriage in one piece. It is sobering work, exquisitely observed and acted with a searing emotional honesty. My first year at Sundance, back in 2001, I was blown away by Ryan Gosling's work in "The Believer," and now, nine years later, I find myself once again flattened by his work. Dean is all impulse, all surface, everything about him easy to read. He's an uncomplicated guy, and that seems to be a good thing for him. It's charming when he's young and Cindy's just getting to know him, but it's nowhere near as cute when he's closer to forty than thirty and they're trying to raise a child.
What I find most engaging (and devastating) about the film is the way Cianfrance is able to break down the precise moments when love kicked in, the moments that led to these two people agreeing to tie themselves to one another, and he's just as good at illustrating the exact moments things fall apart for good, when things deteriorate too far to repair. When we're actually in those moment, we may not realize just how significant something is. A smile across a room, a phone call returned, a tiny gesture that resonates in ways we never anticipated... these are the things love is built from. But what makes someone take that next step from love to marriage? In many cases, it's not about romance and flowers but about need and circumstance. Here, Cindy has a need, and Dean demonstrates the nature of his character in the response he makes to that need. He doesn't have to do what he does. He doesn't have to choose the role he chooses. But he wants to be the person Cindy can lean on, the one she turns to, and because he plays the right role at the right moment, she chooses him back.
Of course, it's not enough to do the right thing one time. Or two times. Or a hundred times. Marriage isn't a game you win. It isn't something you master and then relax into. Marriage requires constant work, constant dedication, constant adjustment. You can't just make one sacrifice and decide that's enough. You have to commit to a lifetime of sacrifice. You are constantly balancing your own needs and desires against those of someone else, and then when you add kids into the mix, you complicate that by a factor of a hundred. Add more kids, and it gets exponentially more difficult.
The centerpiece of the film is a trip to a crappy themed adult motel, where Dean and Cindy give themselves one last chance. It's one of the saddest things I've ever seen, a moment where he reaches out, and she retreats, and we realize that's all the dance is ever going to be. As good as Gosling is, I sort of expect that from him. Williams is the one who's been sneaking up on me over the last few years, and there's a mixture of delicacy and strength in her work that I find quite affecting. She's not worried about looking good or being 100% sympathetic. She's more focused on creating a real character, who makes mistakes, who is her own worst enemy at times, and exploring the truth of that character. Cindy is smart, much smarter than Dean, and when they meet, she's on track for a career as a doctor. The compromises she makes and the place she ends up would be enough to sour anyone, and the way she plays that constant disappointment, the way she projects the dark cloud that Cindy wraps herself in, is impressive. Things come to a boil late in the film, and Williams is terrifying once the floodgates finally open and the sheer amount of disappointment that comes spilling out of her would crush any man on the receiving end of it.
I don't know about anyone else, but the list of "what I'm scared of" has changed dramatically over the years. For Toshi, that list includes the classic Universal monsters, "the Man with the Face" (a constant guest-star in the nightmares that wake him up from time to time), and "not Godzilla 'cause he's good but the other big monsters who is bad". A respectable list. When I was young, my list included my neighbor's older brother, Michael Myers, and clowns. Sure, clowns still place high on the list, but they've been pushed down a few places by ideas like divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure, lack of health insurance, my parents aging, and, above all, anything bad to any degree happening to my kids. Those are the fears that crowd in as I try to sleep, the things that drive me when I'm working. I see Toshi go through certain rituals (setting monster alarms, sleeping with just the right stuffed animals to take care of him while he sleeps, not inviting Vampires into the house) that are designed to keep his fears at bay, and I realize that I have my own version. Much of marriage is maintainence. Making sure that the other person realizes that you appreciate the compromise, the difficulty, and the overwhelming fatigue that can come with just taking care of business... that's the real thing of it, and when that goes... when that's no longer worth the effort... then it's truly too broken to repair. Admitting that is a whole different problem, and Cianfrance's movie, at its core, is all an exercise in capturing that one thing, and building a movie around it that earns it. He's like a nuclear physicist looking at a Hadron Collider experiment that is all about one sub-atomic reaction that lasts a few shaved bits of a second. All that energy in search of that one thing, just to understand it, and Cianfrance's movie nails that goal. Nails it in a way that just plain hurts to watch, thanks to the stunning beauty of the work by cinematographer Andrij Parekh and the gentle, spare score by Matt Sweeney built around a fistful of songs by Grizzly Bear just drives each and every spike deeper into the heart.
One of the hardest things about "Blue Valentine" is the way no one is a villain here. Cindy is frustrated and on some level humiliated by her failure to live up to what she sees as her potential, so she hates it when her husband seems happy with his own place in life. She sees talent in him, genuine talent that he doesn't realize, and seeing it in front of her, knowing how it eats at her, it's little wonder she's unable to keep going through the motions. She can't fake what she doesn't feel, and she can't hide her own very real bottomless pit of dissatisfaction. For his part, Dean can't seem to get past how things started, can't put certain truths out of his mind. He's being pulled to pieces by the past, and she's getting pulverized by the future. The structure of film isn't just about being clever... it's an expression of the exact dynamic that leaves their marriage in ashes, and left at least this audience member the same way, burnt down, worn out. Quite the accomplishment, indeed.
The Weinstein Company picked up the film after the Sundance Film Festival (in fact, Harvey came to the same screening I did, after it had already shown before), and you should get your chance to see it sometime this year. I urge you to do so. It's no good time at the movies, but it is a great film.
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