By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin January 7, 2011 at 5:00AM
Two daring performances make Blue Valentine a standout, even if the film’s reach somewhat exceeds its grasp. Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance attempts to explore the beginning and end of an intimate relationship, hopscotching back and forth in time from the couple’s first meeting and subsequent wooing through the utter disintegration of their marriage.
The film was shot with a six-week break in order to allow Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to gain weight and subtly alter their appearance to indicate the passage of five years’ time. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a fascinating conceit. Without question, it’s the actors’ commitment to this material that makes—
—the film play as well as it does. Gosling plays a free spirit who refuses to conform, and while his change of character seems abrupt at times, all the seeds of his self-destruction are planted in the early scenes of the narrative. Williams’ evolution is much subtler, tied to having a baby and taking her life (and career) seriously; that’s what puts her on a collision course with her irresponsible husband.
The actors achieve a candor and intimacy that’s rare onscreen. Leaving aside a candid sex scene, and a heart-stopping sequence at an abortion clinic, Gosling and Williams strip themselves bare—in a non-literal sense—in a way very few actors ever do. We actually feel their emotional pain, in scenes that reminded me of a John Cassavetes film. (The MPAA never said precisely why it initially rated the film NC-17—it could have been any number of ingredients—but I think the R rating is entirely appropriate for such adult content.)
Perhaps if Blue Valentine were shorter, or a bit more cohesive, it would be more fully satisfying. The parts are definitely greater than the whole, but those parts are so striking and memorable that they make the movie worth seeing, and embracing, even with its faults. I know I’ll remember its star performances for a long time to come.