BLUE VALENTINE: Awkward Flashback Structure Doesn't Accent Drama of Man and Wife Drifting Apart

by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Blue Valentine (c) Weinstein Company
Blue Valentine (c) Weinstein Company

Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” is best described as a less interesting version of the recent “(500) Days of Summer.”

 There are, of course, a few big differences, but the main structural concept of telling the story out of order is almost the same. Instead of following a relationship that never gets passed the dating stage, “Blue Valentine” follows one that involves marriage and a child. In order to explain these characters, the film is told in two different time periods, one at the start of the relationship, and another at the inevitable end.


It opens with the couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), and their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), getting ready for their day. From the opening scene, we can see that this is late in their marriage, and already we can see that things are not going particularly well for them. She is a nurse, he is a painter, and they both love their daughter very much, but that is all that seems to interest them at this point in time. In an attempt to liven things up, Dean suggests that he and Cindy go to a theme motel, but by this time, it only seems like a matter of time before their relationship comes to an end.


The film mixes in flashbacks of how they first met. Dean used to work at a moving company, and while moving an elderly man’s belongings into a rest home, he catches sight of Cindy, who is there visiting her grandmother. Dean falls in love at first sight and decides that he must try to be with her, so he goes back to the rest home in order to find her, and ends up meeting her on the bus ride home. The two seem to hit it off immediately, and so begins a child-like relationship of two people deeply in love, well before their eventual troubles begin.


While the film does have its interesting moments, it felt like there was something missing throughout the entire movie, and, in fact, there was. We see how the relationship started and we see how it came to a close. So what happened to get from point A to point B? That’s exactly what’s missing. What happened to these characters to make them drift apart this much? Their love seemed so solid in the beginning, but by the time the last few weeks of their relationship roll around, they are already on the verge of ending it.


This is why the characters never seem as fully realized as they should have been and why the film never really draws the audience into their predicament. We don’t know what happened to cause any of this, only that they once loved each other and now things aren’t going so well. The writers could have been trying to be deep and say that, in relationships, the answer is never that clear, or that love can disappear without a trace. If this is their answer, they should have realized that it wouldn’t really make for an engaging film.


Saving the film from complete oblivion were the excellent performances from Gosling and Williams. They both have to play two ends of a relationship, which can’t be easy if the middle section is not told. Gosling first plays Dean like a boy having his first crush, then transforms his character into a man who is trying to put together the pieces of a failing marriage that seems to have lost the love they once had.


Williams plays Cindy as someone who, at first, is taken aback by Dean’s straightforward approach to her in the rest home, but quickly sees that his love is for real as hers develops just as fast. A few years later, she sees what Dean is trying to do by taking them to the hotel, but it just doesn’t seem to be enough to fix whatever happened in their relationship over the years that we didn’t get to witness any part of.


What would have inevitably been in that missing section is the character development that is required to make the audience care about how the relationship is going to eventually turn out. By jumping so late into the relationship, we can already tell how it will turn out, so we basically end up riding it out as it falls apart. Instead of just merely riding it out, the audience should be engaged in the story and emotionally invested, but this never ends up happening.


What we end up with here is 2/3 of a story that consequently feels incomplete. It obviously wanted to be something like “(500) Days of Summer” in terms of structure, but the writers just didn’t know how to get up to that level. That film felt like a fully-rounded story despite telling only small portions of the relationship, but the key was that it was throughout the entire relationship, not just beginning and end. “Blue Valentine” is to be commended for the excellent, realistic performances, just not so much for the story. 2.5/4 stars.