Just as falling in love is a part of life, so too is breaking up. Yet most movies leave the subject of breakups in the background, if they address it at all. A breakup often happens to the heroine at the beginning of the movie, and no matter how humiliating or painful it might be, it’s only there so that she can meet Mr. Right (or Ms. Right, as the case may be). The breakup is rarely the main subject.

film1You can understand why too. Most audience members find it a depressing prospect to sit through a film that begins with two people in love and ends with them hurling recriminations at each other. So a lot of recent movies about breakups fiddle with the timeline. François Ozon’s icy 5×2 divides its story into five chunks and places them in reverse chronological order, while Marc Webb’s bittersweet (500) Days of Summer jumps around in time. Derek Cianfrance’s anguished, compassionate Blue Valentine plays a simpler game, intercutting between the stories of a couple first falling in love and that same couple six years later as their marriage decisively flies apart. All these films use the time element to tell their stories in fresh ways, but it’s the one in our theaters this week that hurts the most –– and the best.

In the present day, Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) are married, raising a 5-year-old daughter (Faith Wladyka), and constantly fighting with each other. Dean, a housepainter who frequently enjoys a few beers on the job, has treated Cindy to a free weekend at a hotel for couples in a last-ditch attempt to save the marriage. This burst of initiative is atypical for him — Cindy wants more than her job as a nurse, and she’s continually frustrated that her directionless husband offers her no support.

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