‘Blue Valentine’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’ depict tortured souls with authentic ease

Posted by · 10:56 am · October 6th, 2010

Watching Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” and John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” in the same 24-hour span is a brutal exercise.  There are plenty of raw, realistic, dreary emotions flying through these narratives, but the experiences were very rewarding.

Starting with Cianfrance’s film, which has been making the festival rounds since a healthy Sundance reception, I found it to be a delicate and truthful examination of a relationship in crisis.  (Guy was a fan in Cannes.)  Anyone who has been through the kind of near-numbing emotional spiral depicted in the film, the false fronts of hopefulness that spring up and the crushing disintegration of affection will appreciate the authenticity.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as young lovers pushed into the realities of family too soon and under unfortunate circumstances.  But Cianfrance and his fellow writers don’t focus on those circumstances beyond offering up the information you need to understand the predicament (and, perhaps a bit too tidily, to keep judgment off the table for the viewer).  Mostly the film is a vehicle for Gosling and Williams to take the wheel and go, and boy do they ever.

Gosling is pitch-perfect as a hopeless romantic and a simple fellow with simple goals.  His character is unfortunately a bit elusive because we don’t have the same context of his family life (or lack thereof) as we get from his co-star, but that’s part of his appeal for both the viewer and his on-screen spouse, and Gosling being one of the most talented screen actors in the game is an asset for the filmmakers.  The actor pulls you in with the kind of lived-in believability and charm we’ve come to expect of him.

Williams, meanwhile, is gold as a woman lost in the life she didn’t anticipate, fractured by duty and spirit pulling in entirely separate directions.  And in that way, the film makes an oddly compelling companion piece with “Rabbit Hole,” where Nicole Kidman stars as a woman desperate to move on after the recent death of her son.  These are two acting showcases by these women, conveying incredibly detailed and complex emotions conflicting and burning inside them.

Aaron Eckhart should also be championed for perhaps his best performance since “In the Company of Men.” He settles into a subtle groove as a father furious and frustrated by his wife’s emotional distance and desire to erase her son (and, therefore, her pain) any way she can.  But he also nails the sense of compassion his character feels he owes the circumstance, and the turmoil that bubbles beneath the surface as a result.

Mitchell has a remarkably steady, unfussy hand here following the artistic bursts of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus.” And he continues to have quite the eye for young talent.  Here it’s Miles Teller, who will hopefully spring board this and recent success into a fruitful career.  There’s a genuine quality at work with the actor, as striking as the layered intensity Mitchell found in Michael Pitt nine years ago.

(Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning Dianne Wiest’s concerned but wise mother, a source of comfort and comedy in equal measure.)

Both of these films should find respect from actors, but the filmmakers should also be commended for stepping out of the performers’ way while maintaining a definitive visual identity.  Though the particulars of each narrative may sound trite or familiar, they are anything but because we so rarely see them conveyed in purposeful strokes lacking cliche as we do here.  Vibrant, refreshing work from all involved.

[Photo: The Weinstein Company]

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20 responses so far

  • 1 10-06-2010 at 11:01 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    does Blue Valentine have a release date or it it 2011? I think it would be a bit confusing for it to enter the race right now, especially as the leading categories seem crowded enough.

    I was worried when I saw the clip from Rabbit Hole, the one at the bowling alley. It fels so… cold, so raw, and that’s not really what i had expected :/

  • 2 10-06-2010 at 11:03 am

    Mr. F said...

    Would you say that Kidman’s performance is, like many have said, a career-topping one or just one of her best?

  • 3 10-06-2010 at 11:11 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Just one of her best.

    Alex: It’s 2010. December.

  • 4 10-06-2010 at 11:20 am

    americanrequiem said...

    best actress is just getting ridiculous, i mean really

  • 5 10-06-2010 at 11:40 am

    Lena said...

    Do Williams and Gosling really stand a chance of getting Oscar nods considering how crowded the categories of Best Actress and Best Actor are becoming? Also, isn’t the late release date also a deterrent to them getting nods? (I’d LOVE for them to get nominations because I’m a fan of both but the late release date worries me.)

  • 6 10-06-2010 at 11:41 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I still think it’ll be an uphill fight but I’d like to wait and see what the overall reaction and campaign is like first.

  • 7 10-06-2010 at 12:54 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I haven’t seen it, but everything, EVERYTHING I read says that Gosling and Williams are superb. It would be a real damn shame if they didn’t get major awards buzz.

  • 8 10-06-2010 at 12:59 pm

    Silencio said...

    Yeah, the acting categories are looking stacked, except maybe supporting actress. Any indication about which category Lesley Manville will be campaigned in for sure? I’ve heard word about both. If they choose supporting, she’s likely got it locked up–with a potential for a Richardson upset, it seems.

  • 9 10-06-2010 at 1:14 pm

    James C said...

    Glad to hear it, but they certainly sound like tough sits, particularly Rabbit Hole.

  • 10 10-06-2010 at 1:31 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    They’re not really tough sits, IMO. Just raw experiences. You feel it, but you don’t want to stop watching or anything.

  • 11 10-06-2010 at 1:44 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Would Eckhart be considered lead or supporting? He’d certainly have a shot if he were to be pushed for supporting, while lead is pretty full as is.

  • 12 10-06-2010 at 1:55 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Well, here’s hoping Kidman gets good buzz/precursors, then. She hasn’t always made the best decisions, but I think that she’s well liked within the industry, and it’s been a while since a nomination. Crossing fingers for her & Williams.

  • 13 10-06-2010 at 2:18 pm

    James said...

    Well from what it sounds like their not at all manipulative in their emotion.

  • 14 10-06-2010 at 3:37 pm

    jack said...

    I don’t feel as though lead actor is incredibly stacked. Comparatively lean year for male leads (not that there’s not a good handful, but this category is usually jam packed). Supporting actor feels more full.

  • 15 10-06-2010 at 4:13 pm

    matsunaga said...

    Among the top contenders for Best Actress, where would you rank Kidman’s performance after seeing the film?

  • 16 10-06-2010 at 4:29 pm

    Danny King said...

    At this point, what makes you think that “Rabbit Hole” will be a more potent awards play than “Blue Valentine?”

  • 17 10-06-2010 at 7:33 pm

    Glenn said...

    Danny, I think it comes down to the release date and the fact that “Rabbit Hole”‘s source material is so good and “Blue Valentine” could perhaps skew younger.

  • 18 10-07-2010 at 11:46 am

    Daveylow said...

    Kris, I am glad you liked these two. They were among my favorites at TIFF and despite the serious subject matter I left the theater exhilarated by both films. I think both directors remained true to the emotions of the characters. What a feast of acting! I wish Rabbit Hole had been visually less glossy but I was moved by the acting. And Blue Valentine is a gem. Gosling, Williams and the young actress who plays their daughter all deserve the highest praise. I was heartbroken at the end.

  • 19 10-08-2010 at 7:53 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Hmm an NC-17 for Blue Valentine…