This holiday season, Ryan Gosling carries not one but two movies that chronicle the slow, painful disintegration of a marriage. At the outset each coupling seems straight out of the storybooks, yet one ends in complete emotional breakdown and the other in probable murder. Both films are hard to endure yet impossible to shake, just as dysfunctional relationships often are.
All Good Things is Andrew Jarecki’s fiction-film debut, but it’s not entirely a departure from his 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, since it’s openly, if loosely, based on real-life (mostly disturbed) individuals. This time the focus is the Dursts, a Manhattan real-estate dynasty—specifically, oldest son Robert (here renamed David Marks), who wanted no part of the family business. David (Gosling) finds potential salvation in Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a free spirit so saintlike that she verges on caricature. The couple’s dreamy early romance, which provides temporary sanctuary from the constant pull of David’s domineering father (Frank Langella), and its eventual collapse supply a solid foundation for some good old-fashioned melodrama.
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is more uninhibited, both sexually—the Weinsteins are currently appealing an NC-17 rating—and cinematically. The film, driven less by narrative concerns than by the raw human emotions of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), alternates between scenes of the couple’s glorious beginnings and bitter end, while employing a visual style that corresponds to the mood: the past is filmed completely handheld to express freedom, the present with a fixed camera, tight and unforgiving. But unlike Bergman’s searing Scenes from a Marriage, which sustains itself for every one of its 299 devastating minutes, Blue Valentine begins to falter somewhere during its 114. Perhaps because neither half of the couple is ultimately all that compelling, their trials and tribulations grow tiresome.
When Dean first meets Cindy in Blue Valentine, she is pregnant with someone else’s child, but he’s so smitten that he unhesitatingly agrees to raise it as his own. In All Good Things, David flatly refuses to have a family—even at one point forcing Katie, who desperately wants a baby, to have an abortion. And just as well, since David becomes increasingly controlling and abusive due to mounting fears that he’s losing his wife to her medical-career ambitions (in Blue Valentine, too, the wife’s aspirations, also within the medical field, far surpass the husband’s). And then one day Katie simply disappears. In real life, the case remains unsolved; the movie takes liberties to tell it like it probably is.
So while All Good Things can be accurately classified as a mystery, both films address a far more complicated matter: where does all the love go?