Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? I hated Blue Valentine (opening today at Bow Tie Cinemas.)
But let’s acknowledge something else: I think it might be brilliant, and I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what it’s all about. I watched two hours of searing performances, dreaded moments in the movie, marveled at its direction, even at its conceit, and walked away not only totally bummed, but bedeviled. What is it about? A doomed romance? An abusive relationship? Frankly, Blue Valentine makes me angry, it makes me sad, and it challenges my faith in myself and my fellow movie critics.
In short: I hated Blue Valentine. Despite this, I want you to see Blue Valentine. That’s just the kind of movie it is.
Ryan Gosling plays Dean. Michelle Williams plays Cindy. That’s kind of all you need to know, cast-wise, because they are the lovers in this lovers’ tragedy, though I’m at a loss as to whether or not this is the story of two lovers or the story of a predator and his victim.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Blue Valentine opens ominously, with the loss of a poor dog, and their child, standing in the uncut grass of the back yard (it’s at savannah length), calling out for their mutt. The pooch’s kennel was left unlocked, and it escaped.
Right away we see trouble. It’s damn early, just after the sun has risen, and before the child, Frankie (Faith Wladkya), is going off to school. She wakes her father with her cries, him sleeping on the La-z-boy in the front room. Dean pulls himself up from the chair and helps her look, knows the dog’s escaped, and then playfully–though we later see this as being far from play, and really more of his “loving” torment–takes Frankie in to wake her mom, who’s exhausted from her work as a nurse, and begs to be left alone for more sleep.
The director and writer (with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis), Derek Cianfrance, communicates all the troubles early, and already I was fearing the worst, which did indeed come in to play–this isn’t just a troubled marriage, but a world of horrors, mostly for Cindy. She doesn’t get to sleep, is never comforted, makes the money and isn’t appreciated, and the poor woman can’t even cook breakfast correctly–Dean barks at her when their daughter dislikes the instant oatmeal, and then he essentially plays with her food to get the child to eat (a mess that Cindy will no doubt clean.) Cindy’s job sucks, the dog is dead, and her husband, Dean the romantic, wants them to drop the kid at her grandfather’s, so they can use a coupon at a crappy theme motel two hours away, in an attempt to “rekindle” the marriage. Maybe he just wants to sleep somewhere other than the La-z-boy.
Blue Valentine takes place in past and present. The past was shot in 16mm, takes place mostly in New York City, usually Brooklyn, as opposed to rural Pennsylvania, where they endure the present, which was shot on a RED digital high definition camera. Almost every scene is in extreme close up, which serves the story well–it is true that when a relationship is in the midst of glorious destruction, it seems as though that’s all there is in life–the world has receded, and all that’s left is you and the one you’ve learned to hate.
The present revolves around the trip to the motel, a crappy 80s-style theme motel, to “the Future” room, a grotesque place with a round bed, metal walls, photos of the stars and weird lighting–it looks like a leftover from the set of Dark Star. They don’t leave this room for some time, getting blasted on vodka and eating crappy food.
Cianfrance does a nice job of making the transitions between past and present flow smoothly, and are clearly delineated. We see how, at first, Dean is a romantic, a guy who just wants to find the right girl. He’s a house mover (in the present he’s a house painter) in the city, with a tattoo of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree on his arm–see, he’s a sensitive guy. He helps an old man get set up in a rest home, and there he meets Cindy, taking care of her Grandma, one of the few people in her miserable life that she’s actually happy to be around. Dean falls head over heels in love, and, desperate to get Cindy to call him, follows her, finally convincing the girl to have a date with him.
Cindy is a tough cookie, observing the hateful marriage of her folks, trying to do well in med school (she apparently fails, and has to settle for nursing), dating an asshole who is, unfortunately and perhaps unintentionally (I honestly don’t know) very similar to Dean. In one of the many graphic but untitillating sex scenes, this boyfriend, Bobby, doesn’t pull out in time, and of course she’s pregnant. Later, Cindy refuses to go through with an abortion, and Dean, good Dean, decides that they should “make a family” and get married. Thus, the madness begins.
I’m seriously trying to make a case that this is an effective film in some way, that Blue Valentine succeeds either in spite of itself or deliberately. One complaint I have, regardless of its intent, is the piling on of troubles that Cindy has to endure. It is one thing for a woman to make bad choices because of her upbringing–no woman wants to be abused, but sadly we know that a lot of them are attracted to these men because their fathers were that way. Perhaps that’s Cindy’s case. But every single situation she’s in, from her marriage, to school, to home, to work, has nothing but utter misery, and it unbalances the film.
This points to a larger concern: I don’t quite understand what the director wants us to think about Blue Valentine. I also don’t understand other critics’ take on the film. I dislike talking about what other movie critics think of a movie, mostly because you’re here to read my review, not hear me argue with others. But Blue Valentine has been garnering rave reviews, with critics falling over themselves praising the film for its examination of a doomed marriage, a love that went wrong, and about Dean, a man who some have described as the perfect examination of male insecurity.
The movie I sat through is a film about abuse, nothing more. Dean is an abuser, a predatory bastard who comes in and destroys Cindy’s life. As Blue Valentine progresses, we see, with deadly accuracy, how amazingly manipulative Dean can be–he never listens to Cindy, and manages to make his every failing (oh, and there’s a ton of them) into a romantic dream, her criticisms of him (even when they’re not criticisms) into shrewish digs from a hateful person.
This both works for and against Blue Valentine. On one hand, we’re clearly supposed to feel for Dean. There can be no question that this is the case. But right out of the gate I found myself conflicted, as right away we see him use the missing dog for his own gain. Not only did it help him bond with his daughter at the expense of her mother, but later, at a school event, sitting in the crowd with the other parents, Cindy, showing up late and in tears, tells her husband that she found the poor dog dead by the side of the road. She is totally distraught. Dean, furious, turns to her and says “I told you not to leave the gate open.” Later, after he buries the dog, we see him weeping, and Cindy massaging his shoulders. He does not comfort her because only he is capable of deep feeling–Cindy is only there to help this poor suffering soul. No one helps her.
At first I thought that this was going to be the first moment of the awful give and take of any ruined relationship. Only it’s not–Dean gets worse and worse, and Cindy emerges as a strong woman, beset only with the fact that she seems incapable of being attracted to anyone but assholes. And Dean is the king of the assholes.
Blue Valentine is not, as many critics have argued, a movie about the end of a marriage. Too often I’ve read that the couple is supposed to be working to save their marriage by heading off to the motel–this simply isn’t true, as it’s only Dean who wants this terrible night, and Cindy argues and argues with him that she can’t, that she’s on call the next day and doesn’t want to drive two hours back to work at a moment’s notice (a good point.) While on the phone making the reservation despite her pleas, he discovers that the hotel only has “the Cupid Corner” and “the Future Room” remaining, and she has to decide between the two. When she doesn’t choose a room, he believes himself forced to decide for them. Problem is, as we will see throughout, she has decided, and the decision was not to go. Dean simply can’t hear her. He might want to save their marriage, but not only does he make an attempt that is utterly stupid, he ignores his wife’s needs in the process. And she simply has had enough.
This is also not a movie about a beautiful relationship gone bad–there was never a beautiful relationship. There is a scene fairly famous now, of Cindy dancing in front of a closed store, Dean strumming on a ukelele, and it’s heartbreaking, though I’m not sure if Cianfrance intended it this way. I sank in my seat, because I felt a sickening sense that I was watching what amounted to emotional murder–Dean is trapping this girl, stepping in on a young woman scared of her future, a young woman locked in a horrible relationship with a horrible man, who has only seen her parents’ loveless marriage by way of a guide.
So is this a story of a doomed love, of a couple who have tried to make it work, of poor Dean, the last romantic? Critics from Anthony Lane in The New Yorker to Nathan Rabin at the Onion A. V. Club (two great reviewers by the way) seem to think so. They admire Dean, feel sorry for the bloke, and felt their hearts break at the sight of young love gone sour. Honestly, I can’t even feel as if I’ve watched the same movie.
Consider Lane’s comment that Dean’s close relationship with his daughter, Frankie, is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie–the destruction of their marriage will hurt this child the most. True, except that Lane seems think that that’s because Dean and Frankie have a special connection that the mother doesn’t share. Well, that’s only true because Dean relates to his daughter like a playmate, and not a father. He goofs around with the girl, deliberately sides with her against her mother. This is a great manipulation, and we’ve seen many a parent try to turn a child against another through this sort of guile. Cindy doesn’t stand a chance.
Lane is not alone–many other critics found Dean a man to be pitied, empathized with, a doomed romantic who might have thrived in a different time. Problem is, Dean was this way from the beginning, bullying Cindy into a date, belittling her at her parents’ dinner table by making fun of her favorite teacher’s name, essentially roping her into marriage when she was most vulnerable (after the visit to an abortion clinic.) Like watching a horror flick, I wanted our girl Cindy to run, to flee Dean, especially at the end, when he’s trying his last, cruelest turn, by throwing their daughter into the mix, accusing Cindy of ruining their child’s happiness.
Therein lies the trouble: certain shots, certain plot devices, suggest that Cianfrance thinks of Dean as a victim–especially in the final shot. The marketing for the movie shows Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling wrapped around one another, and the closing credits show them in very posed, very sexy, very loving embraces as fireworks go off. Cindy gets knocked up by her former boyfriend, but Dean, noble Dean, wants to raise the child–what a good guy. He is also beaten senseless by the old boyfriend–gosh, he takes one for her. All the while, I’m thinking I wanted to beat the hell out of him myself for what he did, and was doing, to Cindy. So it would seem that I could say that this is a terrible movie, that Blue Valentine makes a vicious man into a hero, hates women, and doesn’t know what it wants, right?
Yet I’m torn, because Dean is a brilliantly written character. It is not easy to show the strange, meandering, and manipulative way an emotional abuser traps his victims–and Cianfrance, and Gosling, capture this to perfection. And Michelle Willaims’ Cindy is hardly a shrinking violet–she’s a hard-working mom, who actually stands up for herself. We see how her life creates situations where she might fall for a man like this. Their conversations are charged, Cindy trying desperately to deflect Dean’s loathsome manipulations, and I was honestly shocked at the way Dean could twist even a simple observation, and how Cindy got trapped, fought back, and began to see the need for escape.
Because of that, I find it difficult to believe that Blue Valentine is meant to be a romance, fails at this, and accidentally becomes the one of the greatest, if not the greatest, movie ever to show the debilitating effects of emotional abuse. And yet, the marketing, the critics, certain shots and certain plot points totally point this movie in the other direction.
Baffling. Blue Valentine is not an easy movie to watch. Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, young Faith Wladkya, and the excellent John Doman as Cindy’s mean Dad (he was also great as the closeted cop in The Wire) make up a great cast. The direction is sure, the camerawork effective, the editing solid. I just don’t know what it is. I’m not sure that I like what it is. In this case, all I can suggest is that you watch Blue Valentine, and decide for yourself. If you figure it out, be sure to tell me. Maybe I’ll sleep better.