Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole (by Dave Machado)

Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole are two movies that are made to be difficult to sit through. Both deal with the destruction of a once stable relationship that will leave the viewer emotionally drained. Yet despite this broad similarity, the movies themselves could not be more different from each other. Blue Valentine tends to revel in the uncomfortable pain of a loveless relationship, while Rabbit Hole becomes the more uplifting of the two, showing what happens when two people don't fall out of love, but have a stake driven through their hearts that potentially leaves little room for love to regrow. Both are anchored by exceptionally strong performances that will be hard to shake, but in the end, Blue Valentine has far too many "on the nose" moments that cause it to seem like the lesser of the two from a dramatic standpoint.

Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple entering their 30s with the realization that they are not as happy as they once were. The unhappiness isn't due to drugs or violence, but more to the most dangerous element in any long lasting relationship, time. It's only been 5 years since the couple first met but in the present day, that seems like a lifetime ago. We are given glimpses into their past throughout the film as it hops back and forth between their courtship and their current struggles to keep the marriage alive along with raising a child. The most striking part of the film is actually seeing how well Gosling and Williams essentially play two different characters. Seeing them go from youthfully energetic to defeated and depressed is sad in its own right. Knowing it all happened in the span of only 5 years makes it painfully heartbreaking.

While I'll admit the jumping between periods seemed refreshing at first, I began to notice far too many glaring instances where the film tries too hard to maintain a form of parallelism. I understand they want each scene to have an "opposite version" to play off of the clichés of falling in and out of love, but to use such blatant examples left a sour taste in my mouth. The biggest offender begins with the couple's trip to a sleazy motel as a last ditch attempt to reignite that spark that deep down they know is gone forever. (They are staying in the "Future Room", which already set off my subtly flag.) At one point, Gosling's character attempts to make love to Williams on the floor of the motel, but she repeatedly shoves off his advances, not being in the mood. She reluctantly gives in but after a short while, changes her mind and wants him to stop. She begins beating him away, leading him to angrily ask what her problem is and what he can do to make her happy. The film then jumps back to their first sexual encounter, which at one point literally has Williams playfully beating him away as he climbs on top of her.

Similar to the failing relationship portrayed in the movie, it's not big issues I have with the film that causes me to find it lackluster, it's the culmination of all the little annoyances that build up over time. I prefer movies that have mirroring scenes or ideas to use a more subtle approach than simply changing the context of the actions we previously saw. For example, if one were to really analyze the beginnings of their relationship they would realize that the entire theme of the movie is represented in the failed sex scene, thus causing the extra playful scene that follows it to be redundant. Their whole relationship is based on repeated advances by Gosling's character until he finally not so much wins her over, but almost convinces her that the only way to get him to stop is to actually go on a date with him. Only after some time, she slowly realizes she may have settled for something she wasn't really looking for and decides to be the one to try and force the whole situation to stop, leaving Gosling confused and angrily asking what he needs to do to get things back on track.

There is still a lot left in Blue Valentine to chew over (Gosling's speech about women not marrying out of love, the revelation that Williams was a fairly method actor in college, etc.) to make it worth seeing and ponder for days to come. It's the type of movie, for better or worse, that sticks with you long after the final (eye-rolling) scene. I have no qualms with the attention the movie has been getting this award season because I believe all of the acting nominations are just. Others may find my complaints unwarranted and it may be possible I am being too harsh on the film despite what it has to offer. Needless to say, it's still a movie worth seeing, though the question of the film's importance in the current cycle of films is still undecided.

While Blue Valentine is made to question the validity of love and what it means to want to be with somebody, Rabbit Hole is more about the importance of overcoming a tragedy you share with the one you love most. The film (adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play) stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple trying to come to terms with the sudden death of their only son, who was killed when he was struck by a car at the age of 4. With this type of setup, it would be easy for the film to fall into the same "Sadness Porn" trap that bogged down Blue Valentine but the movie is surprisingly sweet and even has a unique sense of humor (albeit an extremely black one). Rabbit Hole does a great job of not turning to the usual clichés of grief movies and features characters that feel real instead of embodied characteristics acting out some morbid morality tale. 

What I found so interesting about the film is that it's not about people who cannot cope with tragedy, but about how different people handle grief in their own way. The film does a great job of never really condemning certain kinds of grief but instead shows how each person's reaction can be both healthy and unhealthy at the same time. The movie isn't interested in the "black and white" take on how to deal with grief but in the shady grey areas that are a lot harder to both disapprove of and rationalize at the same time. I was extremely pleased to see the movie never fall into the typical "spiritual" formula that these types of movies always seem to be tailored towards. Instead, the film plays out like an agnostic's or atheist's take on how to  overcome grief, which is something I found infinitely refreshing.

While Kidman and Eckhart are both fantastic in the movie, to me the real star is Diane Wiest, playing the role of Kidman's mother. Wiest's character also lost a son (to a heroin overdose when he was 30) so she has her own take on grief that is constantly causing friction between her and Kidman's character (specifically Kidman's frustration at her mother constantly comparing the loss of a 30 year old man to drugs with the loss of a 4 year old boy to a car accident). Later on in the movie, Wiest gives a powerful monologue about how one continues on after such a terrible loss. To me, it's the key moment of the film and is delivered perfectly by Wiest. She takes a scene that could have had the subtly of a hammer to the face and underplays it so well that it becomes the most poignant part of the movie. It's a great performance and I was disappointed to see that she is not getting much credit for the role this awards season.

There are a few moments that come dangerously close to continuing boring clichés often seen in adult dramas. Luckily the film has the smarts to constantly pull back just when you think it's going to go too far down that road. Getting so close to the brink of possible failure only to shock you with a new take on these scenarios makes the film seem all the more successful at what it is trying to do. I cannot recommend this film enough to people who want to experience a mature movie that doesn't succumb to saccharine solutions as an easy way out of a horrible situation. I'd place Rabbit Hole in the top tier of movies from 2010 and I look forward to seeing how people respond the the themes that are tackled in the movie in the months to come.

The bridging question asked in both Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole seems to be "Is love doomed to fail when put up against seemingly indestructible obstacles?" Both movies can technically be described as having both an "uplifting" and "depressing" answer, depending on your own baggage you bring to the movie. I guess where you stand on that question will dictate which movie you relate to (and therefore enjoy) more. Blue Valentine wonders if true love can be forced, and if so, how easy does it break under the weight of time. Rabbit Hole on the other hand is interested in discovering how much trauma true love can handle until it begins to crack at the foundation. While I applaud both movies for the ideas behind them, I feel Rabbit Hole is the more successful of the two. But take my advice, give some time between both movies, because seeing them as a double feature is simply a bit too much to take.

You're Welcome,

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