Blue Valentine takes some getting used to. At first, you’re distracted by all the acting. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, a couple enduring one of those quietly desperate marriages, where the unspoken fights are more interesting than the humdrum dialogue about scraping through another boring day. And it’s easy to think: Not again, not another movie about actors struggling (and by “struggling,” I mean “capital-A Acting”) through a doomed relationship. But after that arduous first scene at the breakfast table, things get interesting very quickly.

Support The Stranger

Blue Valentine documents the end of a relationship, but it also tracks the first few days of that relationship, too. While they’re a little too mannered when the relationship is barely sustaining itself, Gosling and Williams excel at the scenes that take place at the beginning and the end of their marriage. Their doe eyes and sincere attempts to pitch woo are believable, and so are the weary, bitter glances they shoot each other as they try to rekindle their flame overnight in a cheesy hotel.

The two sequences complement each other, emphasizing the point that the same thing that attracts us to someone (he’s so whimsical and creative! She’s so responsible and thoughtful!) eventually repulses us, too (why can’t you get a goddamned job? Why do you have to be such a fucking drag?). Derek Cianfrance’s direction is confident: The first-date scenes resemble a romantic comedy, but more cleverly shot; the fight scenes are so claustrophobic that you’ll swear you somehow got some bodily fluids on your lap. But the thing that really saves Blue Valentine from being another, late dose of Oscar bait is that it manages to surprise us along the way. We know how things end up, but we slowly discover why. By the time we fall in love with this couple who fell in love with each other, they’re ready to call it quits. It’s not just their hearts that break. recommended