Look to the sky above Scranton, Pennsylvania. There's a rainbow nestling among the downtown buildings as, below, a city bus crosses in traffic. Can we assume it's conferring a benediction on the young man and woman who, moments later, meet adorably on that very bus and, despite her suspicions, embark on a torrid romance? He's Dean (Ryan Gosling), a blue-collar furniture mover with a goofy charm, a wide-eyed sentimentalism, and a disarming belief in love at first sight. She's Cindy (Michelle Williams), a tough-minded college student who, though thinking ahead to medical school, becomes fatally distracted by this ukulele-strumming suitor, a high-school dropout.
What we're seeing is time past in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. There, in a stream of flashbacks, Dean's giddy romanticism somehow triumphs. Cindy, who is pregnant by another, a boneheaded college wrestler (Mike Vogel), climbs off the doctor's table where she's gone for an abortion. She's going to keep the baby and marry Dean.
There's a second bus scene: they hug in a back seat, and he declares, "Let's be a family." But there's no rainbow this time. And a few years down the connubial road, we find love evaporated, a marriage curdled, and two lost souls with a child, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), to deal with.
In many films, it's the past that poisons the present. Blue Valentine works differently. It's the terrible present, Dean and Cindy's wrecked marriage, that makes the poignant, tender, nostalgic flashbacks seem so deluded. It's the present that also may freak out moviegoers. Blue Valentine is so nervy, so "real," that it poses a dire threat. Dean and Cindy are such decent folks. How do we know what happens to them couldn't happen to us?
So what's wrong here? Nobody has cheated, or been abusive. Both honor their daughter. There's nothing dramatic. It's mostly the oppressive everyday. Why does Cindy feed little Frankie instant oatmeal? Why doesn't Dean take out the garbage? Why does Cindy start a conversation with an old boyfriend? Why doesn't Dean have more ambition?
But one of the two is the more obviously unhappy: Cindy. She never became a doctor. She's just a nurse. Her Chekhovian life: "Been here, stayed here, never left here." Self-hating, she's sickened by Dean also. He's still the man she married, but everything he says and does makes her cringe.
Much has been written about the 12 years it took to make Blue Valentine — the 66 drafts of the screenplay, the obsessive artistry of writer/director Cianfrance, and the commitment of the lead actors, who also are executive producers. Well, it was worth it. Cianfrance is a major new talent in the John Cassavetes mold.
What's more, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams deliver the most nakedly courageous performances of 2010. They are great!
Everything climaxes at a "theme room" sex motel. Our protagonists go there, at Dean's urging, to salvage their marriage. It's a blue-lit ersatz space station where, with its revolving bed, they struggle to have an erotic night. Instead, they drink too much and talk hatefully. Again, it's frightening and threatening for the movie audience to be so intimately present when Cindy laughs scornfully at her husband's aspirations. And when a proud Dean refuses his wife's desperate request for rough sex, it's clear their marital intercourse has lost its punch.