If I'm reading things right, you won't be hearing the two words "Blue Valentine" very often - if at all - when the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday morning.
Which will be a real shame, because Derek Cianfrance's movie is the first "romance in reverse" that actually hooked me right from the start.
Until now, these types of movies have ranged from good-but-far-too-cute ("500 Days of Summer") to so bad I'd claw my eyes out to make it stop ("The Break-Up"). The difference with Cianfrance's movie is that you never doubt, even at its darkest moments, that these were two people who were once completely, even desperately in love ... or so we think at the start.
And it certainly doesn't hurt when the couple at the story's core is played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who throw themselves so thoroughly into the story that it has an intimacy - and though the word is used far to often, it's right here, "raw" feeling - that we often feel like we're watching something we shouldn't be, home movies or certainly private moments that never feel like they've been staged. It's a genuine accomplishment, and though it can make for some uncomfortable viewing at several points, Cianfrance and his actors earn every high, low and in between they deliver.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As the movie opens, we see the couple's daughter, Frankie, searching for her dog, who has gotten out of its pen. Interestingly, if you've seen Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy," you know that that movie also starred Williams as a woman who loses her dog, just about her only prized possession left in the world. Here, however, the dog is just a stepping-off point to show us how each character reacts to it.
Gosling's Dean, who we quickly learn is in many ways just a big kid himself, gets Frankie to eat her oatmeal by eating it "like a leopard," which means bite by bite off of the kitchen table. Williams' Cindy, meanwhile, tries to hold things together, getting ready for her job as a nurse and to get Frankie off to school. It's one of the many great scenes in "Blue Valentine" that sets up a dynamic that Cianfrance plays with for the rest of the movie, using tricks of time to bring us in and out of the relationship to see how they've reached this point in the space of five years or so (I can never really tell how old kids are, so that's a guess on my part.)
Other movies have certainly tried this gambit before. If you live in Macon, the film guild is showing Claire Denis' "White Material" on Feb. 13. That movie does so expertly as it tells the tale of a white family in Africa trying desperately to hold on to the coffee plantation they call home. And "500 Days of Summer" did so too, but Cianfrance doesn't rely on the cutesy day markers that set up each scene in that flick, instead dropping us in and out of scenes we never really feel completely comfortable watching, and often only in snippets, leaving the end of each to be revealed as the movie unfolds.
I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying we come into this as Dean and Cindy's marriage is imploding faster than at least one of them (Dean) knows it. To try and escape from the reality of their dog escaping - and everything else that is clearly wrong just below the surface - they ship Frankie off to her grandfather's (the great John Doman, Lt. Rawls from "The Wire") house and, at Dean's insistence, go off to spend the night in the "Future Room" at a sleazy motel. And even if you think you can picture that, you can't until you see it - a space-themed room complete with a revolving bed, which for the two doomed lovers indeed becomes a world apart, a hotel room at the end of their world.
Cianfrance plays up that for all the humor he can and finds plenty of other moments of levity to make this almost as sweet as it just as often is better, but its in the little slights between Cindy and Dean that you subtly find out how they've come to where they are now. Watch out, in particular, for what happens when Cindy runs into an old flame at the liquor store on the way to the "Future". It seems like a harmless enough encounter, and you don't find out until later just why Dean reacts to the news as he does. Cianfrance reveals this piece by piece, and believe me, it's a mystery that pays off big as the story develops.
I've gone on long enough about this for sure, but there are two other scenes worth mentioning, among many that just get seared on the brain. During their courtship, which earns every moment of cute that comes before the cold, Williams' Cindy tells perhaps the most inappropriate joke you'll ever hear in a movie, but its in the reaction to it, by both her and Dean, that you learn just why they at first, at least, belonged together.
And there's a true moment of grace (which you don't find in movies nearly often enough nowadays) just before they first meet, as Dean is moving an old man's belongings to a nursing home. It's just one more piece in the "Blue Valentine" puzzle that draws us deeper into the story, and makes it worth following all the way to the end we know is coming.
There's a lot more I could say about this - such as this is one of the only movies to truly show what happens when a guy refuses to grow up - but the bottom line is this: Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" is about as raw as a romance can get on the big screen, and one that burns with as much passion as any I can remember before flaming out, so if you can find it playing near you, definitely go see it while you still can.