New in film: Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole

Derek Cianfrance's divorce drama Blue Valentine is the story of how a couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) travels from too-cute introduction to irreconcilable differences in just over half a decade. Starting with the present-day married-with-kid Dean and Cindy, Cianfrance weaves long flashbacks of Dean and Cindy's early days through the film, ultimately dovetailing the couple's wedding day with the last moments of their marriage. It's a gimmick but not necessarily a bad one: In the film's final act, as the parallel tracks veer in wildly different tonal directions, Cianfrance's montage increases in fluidity, and the crescendo it all comes to is effective. But the filmmaker seems uninterested in imbuing his female character with the rich interior life and complicated morality he gives his male lead. Cindy is written as a cipher, inexplicably veering from indifferent to Dean to purringly hot for him (and not just him — in an infuriating scene set in a women's clinic, Cianfrance gives us just enough information about Cindy's past to be able to write her off as a tempestuous slut) and then back to uninterested. It's one thing that Dean has no clue who his wife really is, but in a film that purports to study intimacy, the filmmaker could give us more of a glimpse. Without it, Cindy isn't just a heartbreaker — she's a villain.

John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole plops us down in the lives of Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), 40-ish upper-class marrieds rattling around an East Coast dream house. Becca and Howie's young son was killed in an accident, and months later, the couple is trying to cope. Howie thinks they can do this through weekly group therapy sessions. Becca eventually opts out, and with the wife away, Howie starts getting close to Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose spouse is also absentee. Meanwhile, Becca starts stalking the 17-year-old who was driving the car that killed her son. Becca and Howie's extracurricular activities are the saving grace of a movie that's otherwise a sledgehammer of plot and score. These weird, chaste-but-intimate courtships truly resemble the "How'd that happen?" bad-idea relationships that so often spring from trauma in real life. Not so true to life: the montage that explains how both relationships resolve, with major decision points coming for both Becca and Howie at virtually the same time. With films like Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell made a name for himself telling stories that encourage the exploration of subversive desire; Rabbit Hole acknowledges such desires only to ultimately suggest they're better left repressed. Which might be fine, but here the proceedings are so lifeless that you find yourself rooting for the narrative to fully tread into the disaster zones with which it flirts. Rabbit Hole's tastefulness just punishes its characters, and audience, even further.

 
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