Blue Velvet (1986)
Release Date: September 19th, 1986 MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Lynch Actors: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif
he opening scene famously demonstrates director David Lynch’s obsession with visual metaphors: a serene, grass-covered lawn encircled by a bright white picket fence resides in a picturesque suburban town, where firefighters wave at passerby, schoolchildren gaily cross the street, and blooming flowers are impossibly vivid. But just below the greenery lies a mass of writhing, horned beetles, clawing into the mud. It foreshadows the horrors that await and unsubtly symbolizes the aberrant atrocities lurking beneath the town’s veneer of innocence and tranquility.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to the small town of Lumberton to visit his dying father. On his way back from the hospital, he discovers a rotting, severed human ear in a neighboring field. He takes it to the local police department, to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), and is asked not to inquire about further findings. But Jeffrey doesn’t want to abandon the case that easily; with the help of the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), he pries for details and picks up a few more clues.
“I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” muses Sandy. The two hatch a plan to swipe a key from the home of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) so that Jeffrey can return later to spy on the woman. Dorothy is a nightclub singer and somehow attached to the morbid unearthing. When Jeffrey successfully sneaks back into Vallen’s apartment, he finds himself in a particularly precarious situation: inside a closet, witnessing the sadistic sexual deviancy of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) as he attacks the singer. It’s a twisted, disturbing ransom payment, and the first of many encounters with the dangerous man, which will lead to even stranger introductions and darker secrets.
Stirring music by Angelo Badalamenti emphasizes the mystery and film noir components, alternating between sinister violins, upbeat jazz, and the Bobby Vinton “Blue Velvet” theme. The Roy Orbison song “In Dreams” also has quite the effect, with a desperately weird performance by Dean Stockwell as Ben, Booth’s associate. And they both fit into the absurdities perfectly (his bordello-like dwelling deviously houses a human-sized clown doll in a dress).
While many of Lynch’s films are bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre, “Blue Velvet” appears purposeful as a realistic excavation and examination of disconcerting characters in threatening situations – the utmost dregs of society and those affected by them, rarely witnessed in motion pictures. It’s supposed to be vulgar, macabre, voyeuristic, unsettling, and unexpected – like nothing ever before seen. And indeed, the sexual violence was too much for many of the audiences of the ‘80s; however, by today’s standards, the film isn’t incredibly graphic, which lessens the impact of the unusualness. During its original release, “Blue Velvet” was largely overwhelming in its extremes.
And yet, for all its distracting envelope-pushing, style abounds in this nightmarish concoction of mayhem, madness, and murder. Many of the shots are like dream sequences, with engulfing shadows and atmospheric murkiness, while Lynch also employs extreme close-ups, slow-motion, blurred images, camera tricks, neon lights, and flashbacks for added effect. Scenes end when least expected, characters act spontaneously, and surprises flourish. Which sequences are fact and which are fiction?
Suspense, curiosities, and an absorbing murder mystery (although the freakishness far surpasses the outcome) are brought about by a maddening descent into a surrealistic hell. What was once inquisitive becomes frightening, and normalcy evolves into delirium. Every element, including death scenes, reflects oddities – no one can even die conceivably. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, who delivers an absolutely unforgettable performance as an amyl nitrate-sucking masochist. His actions are never predictable and the insanely over-the-top role, which Hopper clearly enjoys, is one of his most notable. Rossellini also delivers a daring turn, which few other actresses would have welcomed (the script scared away numerous potentials). A love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, “Blue Velvet” is shocking, endlessly controversial, and inexplicably haunting – but it found a huge cult following, immediate critical acclaim, and even an Academy Award nomination for Lynch as Best Director of 1986.
– Mike Massie