"Do you want the Cupid's Cove or do you want the Future Room?" a sleazy motel's reservation line asks an aimless young dad in the downbeat domestic drama Blue Valentine. Dean, played by a raffish Ryan Gosling, just wants to take his wife Cindy (the melancholy Michelle Williams) on a one-night getaway from their little girl for an evening of sex and cheap vodka. Dean opts for the Future Room, and it's pretty much the only time in the movie that the unambitious young layabout shows any foresight.
Blue Valentine spends much of its running time looking back instead of forward. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance begins with the still-youthful couple facing the end of their marriage, despite their attempted tryst at motel Tomorrowland. The film's conceit makes for a bittersweet contrast between the couple's dim future and the dawn of their relationship, when they were two college-age kids full of dreams, romance and precious ukulele ballads. With painful candor — and 20/20 hindsight born of its time-shifting structure — Blue Valentine shows the couple's endless reservoirs of tenderness run dry, and once-charming personality quirks devolve into deal-breaking character flaws.
The viewer's sympathies might initially gravitate to Dean, who's openly affectionate to his wife and child. Cindy supports the family with her nursing job and maintains an emotional distance, underscored by passive-aggressive comments such as "Dean, I don't need to clean up after two kids," as he playfully makes a mess of their daughter's breakfast. She hasn't told Dean that her employer has offered her a new job in another city, a secret that, coupled with the disappearance of the family dog, drive the couple to a breaking point.
A few years earlier, Dean witnessed the dissolution of other people's homes through his job with a moving company, and he shows his big-hearted side by thoughtfully arranging the affects of a decrepit war veteran who moves into an elder care facility. Dean also chats up his wife-to-be Cindy, the pretty granddaughter of another resident at the nursing home. A hardworking medical student with an insensitive boyfriend, Cindy takes a shine to Dean's persistence, despite his lack of a high school diploma. On their first date, Dean warbles "You Always Hurt The One You Love" and Cindy breaks into an adorable little tap dance, a luminous moment of two souls finding harmony that could be a whimsical outtake from Once.
Blue Valentine doesn't reveal a single incident that threw the marriage in jeopardy, but the time-shifting gives the audience 20/20 hindsight and an acute awareness of the warning signs. As Dean, Gosling devolves from scruffy energy to lethargic seediness, as evidenced by a receding hairline, mousy mustache and tinted sunglasses, like the artist's rendering of the Unabomber. Only when he loses his cool during a doctor's office confrontation late in the film do we realize how threatening Dean can be beneath his benign-hipster exterior. Young Cindy proves willing to put aside her better judgment when she and Dean fall in love, but after an unplanned pregnancy and years of dreams deferred, she realizes that for all of his charms, he's an anchor more than a partner.
The MPAA initially gave Blue Valentine an inexplicably severe NC-17 rating for its relatively few sex scenes, which include no full-frontal nudity or rough physicality. Perhaps the uncomfortable realism of Dean and Cindy's failed motel hook-up put the MPAA off, as Gosling and Williams convey a pair's emotional disconnect despite their intimate position.
More so than the sad sex scene, Williams' mournful eyes and uneasy demeanor wordlessly convey Cindy's mixed emotions for her doomed marriage: If only she felt nothing for her husband, she could make a clean break. Instead, the film grinds its way to a resolution that offers little catharsis, despite the depth and commitment of Gosling and Williams to their roles. It's like Cindy and Dean realize that they're not fighting to stay together, they're just fighting.