Perhaps the most frequently cited statistic in America is the one about the country's divorce rate standing at 50%. It's a factoid repeated so persistently that it numbs us to a heartrending reality: Behind every failed marriage is a unique story of hope and despair, of betrayal and devastation.
Blue Valentine looks unflinching at these things. It chronicles the tale of one particular union—how it came to be, and the day that tore it asunder.
The sun has barely crept over the horizon when Dean and Cindy are beset with conflict. The wailing of the couple's kindergartener, Frankie, is the morning's first sound as she discovers that her dog, Megan, is missing. Dean, an easygoing chain-smoking house painter, reassures his distraught daughter that they'll find the missing pooch, even as he encourages her to stick her face in her oatmeal and "eat like leopards." Cindy, in contrast, is desperate to get Frankie ready for school and get to her job as a nurse. She shows little patience for her husband's free-spirited style.
After dropping Frankie at school, Cindy discovers the family dog … dead beside the road. "How many times did I tell you to lock the f‑‑‑ing gate?!" Dean roars when Cindy tearfully tells him.
Unsure what to do, the couple concludes that Frankie should spend the night with Grandpa so they can bury the dog. Then, in a burst of romantic optimism, Dean tells his wife they should get away to rekindle the intimacy that the daily grind has eroded. "C'mon, let's get drunk and make love," he says. "Pack your bags, babe. We're going to the future." Reluctantly, Cindy relents. But her pained expressions tell another story: This couple's future is already in the past. Already a cold, callous statistic.
Flashbacks contrast Dean and Cindy's deteriorating marriage with the days when their young romance was full of promise. They came from badly broken homes, and both long for a marriage different from the ones their parents had. Dean constantly peppers an older co-worker with questions about love and marriage, and Cindy does the same with her grandmother. "What does it feel like when you fall in love," Cindy asks. "I don't want to be like my parents. … How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear?"
Paired with that desire to make marriage work, both characters exhibit moments of tenderness. Dean is an attentive, affectionate father. And, at least in her younger years, Cindy's compassion is evident in the way she cares for her aging grandmother.
After Cindy gets pregnant by a boyfriend named Bobby (a bad relationship she broke off before meeting Dean), she schedules an abortion—but ultimately refuses to go through with it. It's pretty clear that the child isn't Dean's, but he offers to marry Cindy anyway. "Let's do it," he says. "Let's be a family." She responds, "You don't have to do this, you know. It's not your fault." And so they get married, and Dean raises Frankie as if she's his own.
Dean works as a painter, but Cindy believes he could do something "better." Dean counters that since getting married and having Frankie, all he wants to do is be a good father and husband. He wonders why having a career matters if he's attentive to his family's needs (which, in his own way, he is). Both have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation.
As Cindy tells Dean she wants a divorce, he pleads with her, "Baby, you made a promise to me. You said, 'For better or worse.' … Now, this is my worst. But I'm gonna get better. I'm sorry." He also asks her to consider Frankie's wellbeing, saying, "You know it's not just about us. We got a little girl to think about. What about Frankie? Do you want her to grow up in a broken home?" Cindy replies, "I don't want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this."
It's hard, painful stuff. And put together it makes a remarkably salient point about not only the value of marriage in the abstract, but also the value of treating each other right while in the flesh-and-blood bond that sacrament is supposed to protect.
Cindy's father prays before a meal. We see a crucifix and several pictures of Jesus in the nursing home. Cindy and Dean's wedding includes the phrase "holy wedlock before God."
If you've heard anything about this controversial independent film, it's likely that it was initially rated NC-17 for one of its three explicit sex scenes before its distributor, The Weinstein Company, sued the MPAA. The result is an untrimmed R.
The scene in question shows Dean's head between Cindy's legs as he performs oral sex. It's a lengthy shot that involves explicit movements—without showing explicit nudity. The lack of music underscores the starkly realistic portrayal of the act, which was why the MPAA gave it an NC-17 rating. The Weinstein Company successfully argued that the scene's images weren't appreciably different from those in Black Swan, which had already been assigned an R.
Two other sex scenes are similarly unambiguous. Cindy is shown with Bobby standing behind her (again without graphic nudity). Bobby is rough with her, and it's clear she's not enjoying the encounter. A frank conversation afterwards revolves around his orgasm and her fear of getting pregnant. (She does get pregnant.)
Cindy and Dean check into a sex-themed motel where breast nudity, graphic groping and explicit sexual movements give way to Cindy trying to make Dean hit her to arouse her. He refuses. But their conversation implies that she'll only finish having sex if he beats her—a request he's apparently acquiesced to in the past.
Flashbacks show the couple kissing, touching and groping early in their relationship. Breast nudity is seen when Cindy showers. She's propositioned by Bobby and the doctor she works with. And she tells a joke about a child molester. In a conversation with a nurse at the abortion clinic, she says she first had sex at age 13 and that she's had 25 partners.
Also at the abortion clinic, we hear detailed language involving what the doctor is doing as he prepares.
Driven by jealous rage, Bobby and two friends administer a punishing beat down to Dean, unleashing ferocious blows to his face (which bears bloody evidence of the assault) and kicking him in the midsection. Angry and frustrated, Dean hits the doctor Cindy works for. Cindy hits Dean. Dean hits walls and a fence.
Crude or Profane Language
Approaching 50 f-words. A dozen s-words. A dozen misuses of God's name (half of them linked with "d‑‑n"). Two or three abuses of Jesus' name. Characters call each other "a‑‑holes" 10 or so times and "b‑‑ch" at least five or six. A vulgar reference is made to the female anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dean drinks a beer one night and apparently has another while driving. (The can in question is mostly covered by a thermal sleeve.) Cindy says the reason Dean wants to keep his painting job is because he can drink while working. Dean jokingly retorts that it's one of the job's few perks.
Cindy buys several bottles of hard liquor. The couple is shown drinking heavily and getting very drunk before they try to have sex. Dean finally falls down in the bathroom and passes out until morning.
Cindy's grandmother asks for a cigarette, and Cindy gives her one. Dean smokes constantly. Cindy also smokes briefly with Dean in the motel room.
"You always hurt the one you love/The one you shouldn't hurt at all." So sings Dean when the flower of his love for Cindy—and hers for him—is just beginning to bloom. Unfortunately, it's a flower that will all too soon wither and die.
That's what this Blue Valentine delivers—a catastrophic message director Derek Cianfrance has been honing for a dozen years. Regarding the brutally realistic movie's inspiration, Cianfrance said it was rooted in his own fear that his parents would get divorced.
"When I was a kid I had two nightmares. One was nuclear war, and the other was that my parents would get a divorce," he told Huffington Post contributor John Koch. "When I was 20 they ended up splitting up, and it was just so confusing and bewildering to me, and I just felt like I needed to confront all those fears I had as a kid, and those things that I always knew were true between my parents. And when my parents split up, I looked around, and I couldn't really find a film that really spoke to me—that I felt I could relate to. I kept on running into the Romeo and Juliet version of the love tragedy, where two young lovers at the peak of their love end up dying in each other's arms, and their love is preserved for all of time. But that didn't happen to my parents, and that didn't happen to me and my high school sweetheart, and it didn't happen to my friends' parents, or my friends in their relationships. None of those people had that good romantic fortune. I became interested with this idea of just how things can change over time. … There's a mystery of growth and decay over time, and I wanted to deal with that as the hinge, or as the betrayer to this love."
Blue Valentine is more than up to that melancholy task. Cianfrance skillfully shows how the differences in Dean and Cindy's background (he's a high school dropout, she's a nurse), combined with their deep brokenness (he's an alcoholic and there's a good chance she is too) and their family baggage, are simply too much to be overcome by youthful optimism alone.
Whether that failure should be seen as negative—they gave up to soon—or viewed as a viciously truthful assessment of the limits of romantic good intentions is a question the film leaves open to debate.
Not open to debate is that Cianfrance forces moviegoers to sit in the very front row, all but bludgeoning them with virtually every aspect of this couple's marital carnage. No holds are barred, especially when it comes to the sexual content he filmed. I left the theater heartsick over the gut-wrenching portrait of one couple's shattered solidarity. But I felt even more strongly that asking couples to witness such an explicit portrayal of that brokenness is not going to help them fix their own issues. One does not (and should not) have to experience Dean and Cindy's fictional divorce to understand just how devastating real divorce can be.