Blue Valentine wants to leave a bruise.
This marriage-on-the-rocks portrait – it’s a bleary shot of Cassavetes, served on the rocks – is at once romantic and bitter. It teases you with the early infatuation of young lovers Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), then jumps a few years ahead, when they’ve gained a young daughter and hit a boozy dead end. As the time line proceeds to jump between frothy past and furious present, the movie alternately swells your heart and punctures it.
Much attention has been paid to the lead performances, but Williams and Gosling are actually a bit mismatched. She’s brilliant in her naturalness, while his performance seems to be guided by the glowing reviews he expected to receive. It’s full of showy tics (a constantly dangling cigarette), mannered poses (he makes a supporting character out of a sweatshirt’s hood) and strategically released rage. Gosling is immensely talented, but he needs a leash that director Derek Cianfrance doesn’t provide.
Cianfrance does, though, know how to capture the raw, central truth of a relationship in momentary snippets. Early on, there is a precarious, insinuation-laden car conversation between Dean and Cindy that succinctly maps out the fault lines in their crumbling marriage.
Those moments don’t add up to a complete picture, however. Blue Valentine focuses on black-and-blue marks, but we never learn the source of the bruises. We see this couple’s early bliss and late dysfunction without learning exactly how things went so wrong. There is a crucial gap in their narrative – those missing in between years – that leaves us at a distance.
“How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?” Cindy asks her grandmother at one point. Feelings do “just disappear” in the movie, but not in real life. Blue Valentine would have been far richer if it had been a bleak portrait not only of climactic disaster, but also of the gradual losses that wear us down.