Theatre reviews now live over here but that doesn’t mean I can’t review the occasional movie back at TAS, does it?
Now that my main occupation is writing screenplays, I’ve been making more of an effort than usual to see movies as they come out. Pathetically, that means I’ve seen only half this year’s Best Picture nominees. The mere fact that I wanted to see that many, though, and that most of them seemed worthwhile whatever my criticisms of them, speaks well of the year in movies. But it’s still striking that my own pick for best film of the year, while it did garner one nomination in a major category, isn’t on the swollen Best Picture list.
That film is Blue Valentine.
I have rarely seen a film that is so effective and so subtle in communicating ugly truths about the world. In this case: that a woman can fall completely out of love with a “nice” man, to the point that their marriage cannot be saved.
Other critics have already commented on the many virtues of the film. The acting is raw and powerful, the writing spare and perfectly pitched. The structure of the film is brilliantly conceived, running on two parallel tracks: the present, depicting the final collapse of the marriage, and the past, from first meeting through the wedding. The camera work reinforces the distinctions between the two tracks: the scenes in the present are shot in a cold light and framed to reflect the claustrophobia of a failing relationship, while the flashback scenes are warm and open.
But I wanted to take a moment to talk about one aspect of the film that I’m not sure has been properly understood, and that is the husband’s character.
A lot of people have reacted to the movie as the story of class-crossed love, of what happens when a woman with ambition marries a man without any. Cindy (Michelle Williams character) once wanted to be a doctor, and still has ambitions to better herself; Dean (Ryan Gosling) is more satisfied the way he is, focused on the home. That is certainly part of what’s going on – but it’s not all of it, and framing the story this way, it seems to me, is too easy on Dean and too hard on Cindy. Others have highlighted the fact that Dean is a high-functioning alcoholic, and the toll this must be taking on the marriage, but that strikes me as wrong as well – we don’t really see the kinds of screw-ups that we associate with even high-functioning alcoholics, and Dean’s drinking struck me as primarily a symptom of a marriage going sour rather than a cause.
The key thing about Dean is not that he’s of a lower social status, nor that he lack career ambition, but that he is a child, and specifically a child still looking for a mother. Very late in the movie, in one of the flashback scenes, we learn that Dean’s mother abandoned him and his father during his childhood. Just walked out. It’s tossed out casually, so you almost might miss it, but it’s an absolutely essential biographical detail that pulls the different strands of the character together.
Dean is generally described in reviews as being a “good father” – and that’s how he thinks of himself. But what does his “good fatherhood” consist of? What it mostly consists of is being a good playmate for his daughter.
Let’s take a close look at the first sequence in the movie, when the family, already falling apart, wakes up and gets ready for work and school. What does Dean do? He discovers that the dog is missing. He pretends to be a tiger and playfully wakes up his wife (which she doesn’t appreciate). Eating breakfast, he laps up raisins like a cat (a leopard, he says). All this he does alongside his daughter.
What does he not do? He doesn’t go out and find the missing dog. That’s mom’s job. Instead, he complains that it’s her fault the enclosure was left open. (Which, by the way, suggests she was also the last one to walk the dog in the evening. Another job that’s apparently hers.) He doesn’t make the breakfast. That’s mom’s job. Instead, he complains that she made breakfast wrong (she just poured boiling water over instant oats instead of boiling proper oats in the water). He doesn’t get the kid ready for school. That’s mom’s job. Instead, he complains when she tells him to stop playing with the food because they are on a schedule. He insinuates that she’s a bad mother because she lacks a sense of play, yet Cindy is perfectly capable of turning getting dressed into a game, a game the daughter enjoys. She just doesn’t lose herself in the game. The game, for her, is a means to an end (getting dressed and out the door), not an end in itself. Because she’s a grownup.
It is a phenomenally economical sequence. It doesn’t just show how little love is left in the marriage (which is what every reviewer has picked up on). It doesn’t just show that he’s good with the kid (which is what every reviewer has picked up on as well). It shows us how his way of being good with the kid is not actually good parenting, how it reflects his lack of adult responsibility and over-identification with the child, rather than actual “good father”-hood. It’s a perfect counterpoint to another exquisitely economical scene of a marriage falling apart, the opening to Kramer vs. Kramer, when we see, in just a few short phrases (“you’ll be real proud of me,” Dustin Hoffman says to Meryl Streep, apropos of some kind of gold star he got at the office) that the husband relates to his wife as if she’s his mother, there to take care of and praise him, and that she just can’t take it anymore; a brief interaction that’s nonetheless enough to show us why she’s willing to abandon her own child to be rid of the responsibility for the overgrown boy she married. Hoffman’s character is hard-driving and successful, a typical “male,” while Gosling’s is domestic and child-focused, a typical “female” role, as Gosling himself put it. But what they have in common is more important than what divides them: they are both boys, married to mom, whose job is to take care of them.
A second key scene: how does Dean find out that Cindy is pregnant? They are walking over the Manhattan Bridge together, and he knows something is wrong. “I’m very intuitive,” he says, and demands to know what’s up. When she refuses, repeatedly, to tell him, what does he do? He climbs over the fence and threatens to jump off the bridge! Mind you, this isn’t a scene from when the marriage is falling apart. This is back in the warm-lit, open and spacious flashback period, back when they still loved each other. It’s a massive, huge, flashing red light of terrifying neediness, that Cindy ignores because she is so desperate to find someone who will save her from the fate of single motherhood, but it’s there for us to see it. Dean cannot handle her being emotionally remote – whether because he is convinced she’s pulling away from him because of something he did or simply because he can’t bear the feeling of withdrawal regardless of the reason (again, the abandoning mother is there in the background). He just can’t bear it, to the point that he resorts to a hysterical threat of suicide. That’s how needy and vulnerable he is. Before the marriage goes south. Before, in fact, they are married at all.
When Cindy quizzes Dean at their hotel about why he doesn’t have any ambition, why he doesn’t want to make something of his talents – for music, for example – I had to remind myself that this was a wife talking to her husband. It sounded so much like a mother berating her lazy son. And his reaction – I’m just a domestic guy; I didn’t aim to be, didn’t plan on marrying and raising a kid, but it turns out that’s all I really want to do – is a lie he tells himself every day as self-justification. Because he isn’t being the good mother. Where is the scene (to compare again to “Kramer vs. Kramer”) where Dean expertly makes French toast for his beloved daughter? Where, for that matter, is the scene where he tells Cindy he will fight for joint custody? The fact is, he isn’t running the house, managing the kid’s life. He’s doing more than many dads, but much, much less than the typical mother – and, again, he’s constantly on his wife’s case that she’s not doing enough on the domestic side even though not only is she the primary breadwinner with a much more difficult job than he has, she’s actually running the house as well!
Judd Apatow, our most sophisticated purveyor of false hope to the boy-men of America, should be forced to watch this movie. Because this movie tells the truth. There is no hope for those boys, unless they become men, and neither the love of a good woman nor the sudden confrontation with actual children (their own or somebody else’s) will do it for them.