Derek Cianfrance’s relationship drama Blue Valentine conducts a harsh, unblinking autopsy on the doomed marriage of Ryan Gosling, a heavy-drinking slacker much too comfortable with his complete lack of ambition, and Michelle Williams, a practical wife who comes to the bitter realization that she needs to grow old with a man, not a boy, no matter how impishly charming the boy might be. It’s an emotionally claustrophobic drama, played with frayed nerves and raw emotions, and it serves as an unrelenting glimpse into relationship hell. It could easily have devolved into sweaty, pretentious melodrama or ersatz John Cassavetes if Cianfrance and his actors didn’t maintain perfect control over the material.
In the latest of a long string of astonishing, frighteningly committed performances, Williams stars as a nurse who falls for amiable loser Gosling in spite of herself. She’s initially able to look past his rudderless existence, but ultimately tires of waiting for the man-child she married to grow up. For Gosling, Williams is his soulmate, his everything; for Williams, Gosling is good enough until he isn’t. That imbalance proves fatal. As the couple’s relationship reaches a debilitating end game, Cianfrance cuts back and forth between the agonizing finale and the dreamy, romantic beginning, to devastating emotional effect.
Blue Valentine plays like a warped reverse-highlight reel of the most painful moments in a dying relationship: It has the sting and sadness of real life. The effect is powerful, yet strangely not overwhelming. Even at its most intense, Blue Valentine never lapses into melodrama. The film made headlines when it was rather ridiculously saddled with a now-rescinded NC-17 for an “emotionally intense sex scene.” Though it wasn’t designed as such, the NC-17 is still considered a mark of shame to many, but Blue Valentine’s fearless candor and extreme emotional intensity should be a source of pride for everyone involved in this remarkable, utterly wrenching film.