Blue Valentine (2010)

There is a disturbing quality to the film Blue Valentine (2010) that dwells like an inescapable consequence of action, as much a living breathing thing as either of the two central characters, which permeates even the slightest detail of their life story. Though we’re given all the pieces of their lives inside the span of five years, the careful but effective first glimpse to the ensuing love affair, it is the jagged puzzle in the between spaces that gives the film the strength to persevere even when we cringe at such stinging, insistent honesty.

Constructed from fragments, the non-linear story is gathered like torn photographs and reassembled, jagged pieces that sometimes fit but need constant pressure to hold them together; the reality of love gone wrong, love beaten up, love destroyed often refuses to solidify.  The film lingers on seconds that reveal in small, significant ways an intensity captured, bottled and released.  Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) appear made for one another in that fairytale sort of way that only truly exists in cinema no matter how much we want it to be part of who we are, of who we were.  This is the inevitable consequences of two people brought together by familiar circumstances like the Travis Tritt song, with the best of intentions.  Yet the indefinable is ever-present; that chink in the armor of the valiant knight, that fatal flaw in the maiden betrothed to another who gives up everything, even her life, for seconds of true love.  But it can’t last, it never does, not in the way the characters want it to last.  For them the flame that burns the brightest burns the fastest and the fire cools as if on ice; this is where the story pivots, at the crossroads of two kids trying to stay young and mature and in love at the same time forever.

Above the Line: Practical movie reviews with Rory DeanFilmmaker Derek Cianfrance began making films at 13 and later studied under avant-garde legends Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon.  Their influences and the work that followed was clear preparation for this, Cianfrance’s second feature after numerous award-winning short films and documentaries.  He wrote, directed, shot and edited his first feature, Brother Tied at the age of 23.  His interest in, and obsession with, human fragility is precise and focused.  Blue Valentine doesn’t seem so much like a second film as an extension of all the work Cianfrance has been doing since he first picked up a camera or a pen with an eye toward movies.  Blue Valentine reveals a command of character that is crystalline and complex, the beauty matched in challenging detail to the pain that lingers bitter-sweet.  Audiences appeared off kilter when leaving the theater after I watched this film with my wife.  Some sat through the credits, head held just so, listening to the aching ukulele strummed clumsily but necessarily so by Gosling as a series of photographs appeared and faded, appeared and faded.  The pictures might have been a kiss, a breath of air, a glance across a crowded room before nothing but memory.  Others stood quick, stumbling, fingers clutching seat backs for traction, trying to take it all in like breath and then let it go less the film leave an indelible mark with questions no one really wants to ask or be answered.

As Jeff Leins writes for, “…[the film was] a passionate labor of love for the director and co-writer who endured 12 years of preparation and 66 drafts before embedding with the actors in a Pennsylvania home.”  That’s passion personified.  Christopher Nolan’s debut film, The Following followed a similar trajectory; shot on 16mm on a shoestring budget, Nolan wrote, directed, filmed and co-produced over the period of a year while the entire cast and crew maintained full-time jobs.  Sean P. Mean writes at, “Diana Ross once asked “Where did our love go?” — a question that director Derek Cianfrance’s drama “Blue Valentine” answers with shattering honesty” and his observation is deservedly poignant about a story that feels empty or on its way to empty.  Of course I would be remiss not to include a line from godfather and querulous critic’s critic, Roger Ebert, where he writes, “the film’s writer and director, observes with great exactitude the birth and decay of a relationship. This film is alive in its details.” Hardly a second of screen goes by without serving some cause; muscle and tendons power this story with no need of excess, no place, for the fat that frequently weighs down character studies this exacting is cut down to the bone.

Ryan Gosling’s career is a mish-mash of odd and perplexed characters, at once charming, he wears handsome and vulnerability equally if not at odds with one another; his range at 31 is every bit as taught with emotion and psychological consequence as peers considerably older and with a list of films far larger.  Gosling is a Canadian actor and musician, forming the band Dead Man’s Bones with his friend Zach Shields; they released their debut album in 2009.  Gosling started at the age of 12 and by 21 he commanded attention with a riveting performance in the 2001 drama film The Believer for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead as a fanatic Neo-Nazi conflicted by a secret that slowly, methodically explodes from within.  If you’re looking for an early, mesmerizing film by Gosling, The Believer reveals an undeniable intensity that would go on to serve him well in the romantic drama The Notebook (2004), Half Nelson (2006) and the oddball film, Lars and the Real Girl (2007).  Blue Valentine feels like it was written for Gosling as his singular portrayal of a man with small, tangible dreams and love that comes from an unquestioned heart – where it lives better nowhere else – is striking if at times sedate, charming and giving.  He makes us believe no matter how much the story pulls him toward the fireworks popping off into nothing at the finale.

Michelle Williams’ career really started with her role as Jen Lindley on The WB television series Dawson’s Creek that ran for 16 seasons from 1998 to 2003.  Destined for the big screen, she starred opposite Christina Ricci in Erik Skjoldjaerg’s film Prozac Nation (2001) and then in Ang Lee’s award winning film Brokeback Mountain (2005), Todd Hayne’s creative film, I’m Not There (2007) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) — my review here — among many other smaller, less notable work.  Praised for her genuine and varied performances, she has received a number of awards and nominations, and like Gosling, her career began on television but soon needed the space and audience of the big screen.  She too seems selectively chosen for the role of Cindy, a young woman searching for love and intimacy in one empty relationship after another.  When she finally finds someone different (Dean), someone who seems to offer her all the things she wants out of life, emotions sweep her up and in the blink of an eye she wakes up on the other end of a five-year marriage with mounting uncertainty that threatens to unravel everything.  William’s gives her character a broken quality that sustains like a single note that fills the ear long after it is recognizable.  While her transformation from young mother to conflicted woman is clear, there are moments when the two seem interchangeable and perhaps rightfully so.  Like the world around her, her life was never allowed a natural course of development and as such, her distance and rage explode with too long a fuse to know when it is safe to be near or go running away.

Blue Valentine is at times a joyous, affirmation that relationships carry with them the blessing of togetherness, romance, and passion but also the weight of responsibility.  This is a film that never steers too far off course, suggesting that for every smile there is a tear, that for every good deed we are not always able to keep things from coming apart.  Heavy and personal, uncomfortable and engaging, nicety and not so nice are all just words when it comes to two people moving in opposition.  The sharpest pain of all is the sudden realization that it can’t go on even when a little part of you can’t bare the thought – no matter how much you need to.  Blue Valentine is a whisper, a question that asks: have you ever wondered what it was like to have something you took for granted lost, or wanted to make difference count for something beyond saying the words?  Blue Valentine isn’t for everyone but neither are relationships and love if you’re a stranger to them, or having no experience with what it is like to feel arms around you give a little in another direction not of your choosing.

You And Me – Penny And The Quarters

About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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12 Responses to Blue Valentine (2010)

  1. Bea Sempere says:

    Great review, Rory. I’ve heard about this movie, and was wondering about it’s content. I enjoy Independent/Sundance films as opposed to the so-called blockbuster. Thanks for the review.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks Bea — it is a challenging film given the emotional and psychological intensity but worth it for anyone who wants to watch a film where the characters don’t wear their emotions on their shirt sleeve. I have to say I’m still thinking about the film after watching it and that says a lot to me. best->

      • rorydean says:

        Hey Cheryl — I’ll assume WOWOW! Means you liked the film. I was talking to someone yesterday who had not seen the film and were on the fence about it. They liked both of the actors but had heard the film was “depressing” and dwelled a bit too much in melancholia. I have to agree that it is emotionally terse, strained even, and truthful to the point of brutal honesty, but you won’t find a better performance in any of the big films up for all the gold come awards time.

        If you haven’t seen Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, The Believer or Slaughter Rule you might want to check those out. Different films but character-centric stories with superb performances.

  2. Tom Pyron says:


    I finally got to see this film today. 6 hours and a nap later and I can’t stop thinking about it.

    A fantastic and intelligent review, Rory, leaving me disappointed that Netflix isn’t streaming The Believer.

    I was blessed to hear an NPR interview with Gosling a couple of weeks ago, where I learned of the “live in” improv technique they used to develop their relationship. I definitely feel like it paid off in spades. I commend Cianfrance for unfolding things the way he did here, as it tugs hard at some very deep feelings I have about relationships and divorce. The seemingly “endless ending” left me wondering “where is act 3,” but I was instantly smacked by the realization that there often is no resolution to these kinds of things. That they can drag on and on leaving a void in one’s soul, the replenishment of which requiring a great deal of emotional discipline that some just aren’t equipped to carry.

    A well executed design all around, in my opinion, the opening scene just as memorable as the fight scenes. The soundtrack and score masterfully reviewed. The camera placement and blocking telling the story as much as the actors and writers. Even Dean’s choice of “The Future Room” as a last ditch effort to save his dream from floating away silently.

    Regardless, I adore films like this. Live action and brutally honest in it’s reality. One might ask why a guy who focuses on military content would feel this way: because sometimes, just sometimes, I’ll let my imagination take over and tell myself that this is why we fight. Maybe not why our civilian commanders send us places, but why we protect our brothers in battle on either side of us… for those on the battlefield have no choice. And in my romantic little mind, neither did Dean.

  3. rorydean says:

    Tom — Thanks for the thoughtful and personal note. I’m working on a review for The Believer, stay tuned for that. I’m not surprised it isn’t readily available given the caustic material but, like Blue Valentine, Gosling truly commands your attention and delivers such a presence I’m still looking for actors his age to compare him too – not that it is necessarily important for comparison but illustrative of an era when good looks and pop culture have eked out the truly talented. Where are the William H. Macy’s and Pete Postlethwaite’s of today?

    Cianfrance was bold and carefree about his approach and was fortunate to find his muse in this duo. I know what you mean about the structure and the sense that after an hour things should be heading toward something more familiar, a plot point or moment whereby the film gently, or otherwise, gives us reason to believe we’re going to find closure – I suppose Hollywood has ruined us for the oddball, for the clever and no less sophisticated departures from the three act structure. It isn’t always welcome but when delivered with this magnitude you have to embrace it and cherish it.

    “That they drag on and on leaving a void in one’s soul…” perfect line. I agree, and if you haven’t seen Jack Goes Boating I recommend it (see my review). Another character film, not at this level of emotion but an impressionable film and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut.

    I think you’re in a tremendously important place, someone who has been in front of and behind the camera, a person piqued by the “live action and brutally honest” and in that way you have an opportunity to fuel your projects with this in-between that is often wielded too heavily or not at all. I think the matter of “choice” and “understanding” are often at opposite ends from one another and perhaps rightfully so, but joy is the middle where we live, where some look in from the void and others stare at it frozen, a source of power or maybe ruinous after all.

    “Once more into the breach…”

  4. Steve Krupa says:

    I loved this movie. It is so well structured, I felt no scene was wasted. I think it’s my favorite film of the Oscar season and I am disappointed it didn’t at least get a nomination for Best Picture. Michelle Williams will likely lose out to Natalie Portman, both fine performances, but I believe Black Swan was a much weaker film. Thanks for the interesting review, my wife is a big fan of Half Nelson, so it’s coming our way on Netflix soon.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Steve — Yes, so much to like about this film, though I find myself thinking in terms of appreciating it in place of like/love as it was quite heavy and still lingers as I write about it. But agreed, a really amazing film and you’re right, there simply was no room for wasted seconds and the actors and filmmakers made sure of that. I think BV wasn’t nominated for the same reason genre films often fail to be acknowledged by the awards people – they never admit it but politics is often an undercurrent that frequently gets in the way of logic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my review of Black Swan which I found to be quite exceptional. I’d have a tough time comparing the two – they just feel so different.

      I have to review Half Nelson. It’s on a very long list of movies I hope to get to this year. Cheers->

  5. Cheryl says:

    Yes, I loved BV! It’s not only brutally honest, it’s very realistic as to what happens to many marriages when the parties marry young and don’t mature at the same rate or don’t mature at all. It’s so sad to me when couples are so in love in the beginning, and then life happens, or doesn’t happen, they change, their feelings change, and their goals change. I’m still thinking about the movie also, and Gosling and Williams were both awesome!

    • rorydean says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this one, or maybe appreciated is a better way of putting it. A lot of people I’ve talked too about this film talked about how it lingered with them days, even weeks later. I think you’re right on about the realism of relationships, especially young and immature people thrown together out of necessity or lust without the slightest idea what “down the road” is going to look like. I’ve known a few relationships just like this and I agree, it is sad for everyone involved. I’m excited to see Gosling and Williams next project — Gosling has several coming out, including All Good Things which pairs him with Kirsten Dunst — I’m interested, especially with Frank Langella who was brilliant as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon and also Starting Out In The Evening, which I can’t recommend more. Williams will be playing Marilyn Monroe in a film coming out next called My Week With Marilyn and her physical transformation is quite amazing.

      Thanks for dropping by, best->

  6. CMrok93 says:

    The chemistry between Gosling and Williams is what brings out the heart within this film, and make it feel more genuine. Their scenes are both realistic and heart-breaking, and you cannot stop watching at all. Good Review!

    • rorydean says:

      Definitely! Chemistry between the leads, not to mention the major supporting roles, is such a critical thing I’m always amazed when producers and directors get it wrong. I was just commenting the other day about the great chemistry on the set of Donnie Darko – the family, the real life brother-sister dynamics with Jake and Maggie. I also think the chemistry was spot-on for the recent romantic comedy Going The Distance – a film that was not the most original story but worked because the characters, minor and major, were fleshed out and worked well together ‘on screen’.

      Thanks, always for dropping by and your kind words->

  7. Pingback: Stand Up for Pain in the Oblivion of Pines | Above the Line

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