If Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams don't receive Oscar nominations for their performances in Blue Valentine, it will be damning evidence in the case against Academy politics and the institution's failure of integrity.
Both of their performances are absolutely riveting. Their characters (Dean and Cindy) exist flawlessly in the world created by the film, immersing the viewer in the middle of a decaying marriage where residual resentment has built to a point where tensions go unspoken until they occasionally boil over in incidents that, at times, left the audience squirming in their seats.
The film opens early one morning with the couple's daughter standing in the yard calling for the dog, which has gone missing during the night. From that point forward, the audience follows the couple through a day-in-the-life sequence of breakfast, work, elementary school recitals, and finally finding the dog, which has met an untimely end after being hit by a car.
The characters of Dean and Cindy are captivating both for the simple, no frills intimacy and the uncomfortable tension that seethes just below nearly every exchange. The loss of the dog, which brings both characters to tears at different points, and prompts the couple to drop their daughter off with her grandfather (a seemingly gentle old man who we later discover wasn't exactly a caring father figure in Cindy's life).
Dean's explanation to the little girl about the dog, that she moved to Hollywood to become a movie dog is priceless, and begins to more fully develop the softer, compassionate side of his character, which often remains hidden behind his cheesy sunglasses and receding hairline.
With their daughter gone for the day, and drinking a beer to drown out the anguish of having just buried the dog in the backyard, Dean suggests that he and Cindy get away for the night, to a cheesy, theme motel a few hours away - a desperate plea ("we gotta get out of here,") presumably to escape the rut in which they've clearly become trapped. She begrudgingly accepts.
Along the way, while stopping for gas and liquor, Cindy runs into her old boyfriend, which seems innocent enough until we're given the full back story of their relationship - and the early days of her relationship with Dean. The encounter clearly upsets Dean, leading to another argument in the car, made even more intense by the tightly cropped, close up shots of their faces used by the director, Derek Cianfrance. There is no escape.
The darkness of the present is increasingly interspersed with flashbacks to happier times, to the carefree days when the two met accidentally - Cindy visiting her grandmother at a retirement home, Dean working as a mover assisting an old man on his way into the facility.
The juxtaposition of the two lives, which now seem so irreconcilably distant after only a few years, is really what drives the rest of the film. The audience has come to know the two at a basic level, as they are, and now the depths of their humanity blossoms before us and we learn exactly how they've arrived where they are.
It is a movie where nothing and everything happens. It is a poetic lesson in what life can be like. It is unflinching, conflicted and messy. It is its realness that makes it so powerful, and perhaps it is this exact lack of escapist pleasure, which is so often the only asset of contemporary blockbusters, that has earned the film an NC-17 rating. It most certainly isn't for nudity (there are two brief shots of nipples, an upper thigh, and a partially exposed butt cheek throughout the entire film).
However, the unapologetic portrayals of sex, which range from a compassionless banging of Cindy by her ex-boyfriend to a botched, drunken incident with Dean at the hotel, are certainly not the swooning, implied soft-core that is passed off in most American films. To find Blue Valentine inappropriate for its raw intimacy though is an act of sheer denial; or an admission that one has never been young, made mistakes, and followed chance only to find it led one down the wrong path occasionally.
It is a task to survive the film, exactly because of its grittiness, and by the time the credits roll, there is a feeling that you've truly just compressed years worth of pleasure and pain into two hours. In that regard, it may be one of the most accurate portrayals of life ever translated onto film. There is no wall between the viewer and the characters. There is no veil of irony or alienation behind which to view the emotional car wreck that slowly plays out.
It is not a perfect film by any stretch, but the people it portrays are not perfect either, and the central accomplishment is the transformative performances by Gosling and Williams, as well as the deft direction by Cianfrance, who clearly shaped the mood like a sculptor, but without ever leaving any fingerprints in the clay.