Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance's (temporarily NC-17 rated) look at a marriage gone awry, opens with a simple enough scenario: the family dog has gotten out of her cage, and is missing. Yet by the time this scene concludes (and an answer is still not given), the film has elegantly, effectively shown you that Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) marriage isn't in great condition. It's scenes like these, some downcast, some charming, that allow Blue Valentine to reach the filmmaking and acting highs that it does.
As the film's only two real characters (in the sense of being fleshed out), it's up to Gosling and Williams to create a compelling doomed couple, and in this they succeed. It's not necessarily because they're written (initially) as likable people, but rather because of the skill and commitment that the two actors bring to their performances. A scene where Williams almost goes through with an abortion chills all the way down to the bone thanks to the actress's subtle skill at communicating her gradual change of mind.
As a result, neither half of the story ever feels shortchanged, because we believe this couple in their happier days and in their more dour moments. Some have accused the film of being slanted against Williams' character (Cianfrance based it - somewhat - on an actual relationship), but if anything the film leans slightly in the opposite direction. Cindy goes through with her plan to study medicine and becomes a nurse, whereas Dean gives up on his own potential and settles, never actually acting to make life for the household better, even if he wants it. And when the first, only really, explosive argument hits, it all rings true.
Labeled as a love story in reverse, Cianfrance's film is more of a love story put in a blender. It jumps often between the two sides of the film (Dean and Cindy getting together and happy vs. Dean and Cindy married and at odds with each other), though never to be confusing. Transitions between the two sides of the film are handled with a number of elegant linked cuts. A scene in which "Past Dean" look across a hallway and sees Cindy for the first time is followed by a reaction shot of present-day Cindy staring off at something else. These cuts, along with the strangely effective soundtrack by Grizzly Man and near constant presence of the color blue, help add the tiniest flourishes of style in a story that we know is headed for a bad place.
Unfortunately the film, like the relationship, has its issues. Some of the normal cuts between time periods can give off a sense of bi-polar film making, rather than two elegantly woven halves. And though much of the film works, it does sometimes lag. At 1 hour and 50 minutes, it never drags to the point of tedium or boredom, but let's just say that there are a handful of places where you might find your mind wandering. A few minor characters, though played effectively, feel unfortunately one note (ex: Cindy's angry father).
On the whole, though, Cianfrance, through the strong work of his leads, is able to craft a compelling look at a match not quite made in heaven. It never descends into melodrama or engineers cheap ways to elicit overwrought screaming matches from its characters. Films like this are often sunk by aspects like direction or script, and even with the handful of issues with the writing, Cianfrance's film easily stays afloat thanks to the keen awareness of his direction, and the wonderful work from his committed leads.