We see Bale’s Dicky Ekelund straight away: a manic jester slouching towards catastrophe. A former welterweight champion, Dicky’s wider celebrity has receded, existing now only in his native Lowell, Massachusetts, a grimy, blue-collar suburb of Boston.
Still referred to as the Pride of Lowell, it’s unsure if the man who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard is eliciting sympathy or pity from the coterie of barbers, shop-owners and crack-addicts he riffs joyously with in the streets. With Dicky—a curiosity, a comedian and a crack-head—it’s hard to tell.
As an HBO documentary crew follow him around, charting his fall for a series on drug-addiction in America, Dicky happily tells all those who’ll listen that the crew are documenting his imminent rise—a comeback to the ring. His brother appraises the chances of a comeback thus: “He’s 40 and not one of the teeth in his head is his own”.
And so not, then, the triumphant underdog role for Dicky. It’s reserved for his half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), and it’s not clear whether Dicky’s tutelage is a hindrance or a help to Ward. It’s perhaps the film’s only complexity—how to think about the brothers’ relationship? Self destructive, selfish and impetuous, Dicky imperils his brother’s career. But Dicky also clearly loves his brother, knows his game intimately and his boxing brain is still sharp. It quickly becomes less clear whether Dicky is the corrosive influence we first thought.
This may provide the film with its best dramatic tension—the brothers’ relationship lurching between portents of failure and success, acrimony and vindication. There’s a subtle satisfaction in watching Micky Ward’s reconciliation with his brother. Ward can no longer wholly embrace or wholly reject him—but he’s resigned to needing him nonetheless; needing his intensity, his loyalty, his knowledge. But by the end of the film, even as he’s dancing triumphantly around the ring, a freshly-crowned champion, you get the feeling that Micky Ward knows there’s a price to everything.
While we watch Micky Ward move steadily, steadily upwards and Dicky’s fortunes dart around like a bird caught in a squall, there’s only one direction the characters of Blue Valentine are heading. And, unfortunately for most of us, we’ve been there too.
Blue Valentine painfully charts the bottom falling out of a marriage. Flitting effortlessly between the amorous past and the toxic present, Valentine captures achingly large emotions in the very small movements of its characters. For much of the film—with some indulgent exceptions—we are shown things, not told them.
Michelle Williams is especially good as Cindy, subtly transforming herself into a ghost stung by the common irony of discovering the most acute loneliness in marriage. When Dean (Ryan Gosling) steps into the shower with her, in a futile attempt at intimacy, Cindy obligingly, lovelessly kisses him before feigning intense interest in showering. Dean retreats. No words are exchanged. It’s a powerful and exhausting scene and the shock of recognition is awful.
In fact, scrap that. Williams isn’t “especially good”, she’s great. While Gosling teeters on histrionics, Williams has the sense to strip her ego away in order to paint Cindy’s spark become eclipsed by despair. Incredible.