I wasn't really interested in this until I read a particular review that described it in horror movie terms, and well, horror when applied to relationships--that appeals to me! So I packed my friend Howard [interested in it already] and we ran off to see it.
The deal here is that we alternate between the beginning and breakup of a relationship, skipping everything in between, which really we don't need to see, anyway. We open with a little girl coming inside to wake her father, as their dog is missing. This is Ryan Gosling as Dean, who holds onto his child with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. They wake Michelle Williams as mom Cindy, who makes the [non-instant] oatmeal with water instead of milk, presumably because they have no money [she works as a medical assistant and he paints houses]. She obviously stopped being amused by her husband's antics some time ago [although their four-year-old daughter is delighted], and we notice the first of many cracks about how Dean is essentially a child.
We now see younger Dean get a job at a moving company, and move an old man from his house to a room in a nursing home. Dean takes his time and sets up the man's room, placing his posessions up all over, setting up pictures and mementos, etc. The scene ends when we see him looking out of the room in a strange way. We later find out that he had seen Cindy for the first time then, and later ended up sharing a pleasant night with her; one of the big sequences of the film, where he plays ukelele and sings "You Always Hurt the One You Love" as she dances in a carefree way, neither of them knowing what's ahead of them.
In the present, Cindy finds their dead dog by the side of the road. Dean calls up a local theme motel and arranges a night in the "future room," saying they have to get out of the house, go get drunk, and have a good time together. Cindy tells him pretty explicitly that she doesn't want to go--and while we spend a lot of time in that room with them, and not much of it is fun. It tells you a great deal about Dean that when Cindy criticizes him for having a job where you can start drinking at 8am, he replies that's what's GREAT about it. Earlier we have seen Cindy's grandmother express regrets about her own loveless marriage, advising Cindy to wait for a man who cares about her as a person, and we soon see that Cindy's own parents don't exactly have a high degree of trust and respect in their own dealings.
So you see things as they're starting, and you see where they end up, which is quite a fatalistic view, but in a way it's SO depressing that you kind of defend against it [like antibodies] and I didn't find it that bothersome. Their lives and the little wrinkles that end up in their relationship seem very true-to-life and lived in, and one special thing I admired about the script is that they both have their own believable, and very consistent, styles of bad communication. We see that Cindy simply doesn't talk when something is bothering her, and when she does talk she just repeats "I can't do this! I can't! I can't! I can't! I can't do it!" while he says something like "Just tell me what I need to do? Tell me! Just tell me and I'll do it! Just tell me!" It also features little luminous details that go far to fill in the backstory and characters here, like when Dean comes barging into Cindy's office demanding to speak with her, and her co-worker says "Don't let him brainwash you!" With that one line, a whole history of inter-office complaining comes clear.
This movie also sucessfully portrays characters that are simply not all that smart, but in a realistic way that doesn't condescend or beg for sympathy.
We also find out eventually that this marriage is the result of the old unexpected pregnancy and impulsive decision to get married. Another great little detail is when we discover that Dean has not graduated high school, because it "wasn't right for him," and that he thinks that "high school isn't what it's cracked up to be." It was during these moments that I thought what a great cautionary film this would make to high school students, as two messages one gets solid reinforcement for are STAY IN SCHOOL! and USE BIRTH CONTROL!
Anyway, very good, very well-written and acted, and very depressing. Afterward you can think about it and a lot of small connections and links of consistency come out, which are there making this a solid story, but without having to announce each and every one. This is in contrast to something like Black Swan, which broadcasts its every artsy little touch so no one can miss how very artsy it is. This one is content to be subtle and let you notice things. Subsequently, the more one thinks about it, the better it gets.
Yes, it's quite good.