Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for coffee and cherry pies, it remains popular thanks to DVD sales and Netflix. If you are new to Lynch’s world, it is a great way to enter his mind before going into the darker Blue Velvet, which touches on similar themes and I also found on Netflix.
As far as inciting incidents go, Blue Velvet has a whopper that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Law-abiding citizen Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, before Twin Peaks) is home from college after his father has suffered a stroke. While taking a walk in the beautiful suburbs of Lumberton, North Carolina, he takes a shortcut in a vacant lot where he discovers a human ear. It is not every day one discovers a piece missing from a fellow human being, but rather than walk away in disgust Jeffrey carefully bags the ear and brings it to the police station and makes a statement.
While re-telling the incident to detective John Williams (George Dickerson) Jeffrey becomes re-acquainted with his daughter Sandy (Laura Dern, looking at home in the beauty of the American suburbs). That should be the end of that, but by spending time with the detective’s daughter Jeffrey learns more about the case of the severed ear and becomes dangerously curious. The movie’s production design initially depicts a beautiful and sunny suburbia, but as Jeffrey becomes entangled in the underworld that lies beneath things become darker and much seedier.
Two people shake Jeffrey’s world to its core. First, there is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) a seductive damsel in distress first seen singing Blue Velvet at a nightclub. Then there is the man making her life a living hell, the deranged Frank Booth, played with terrifying energy and rage by Dennis Hopper. A sadomasochist who has kidnapped Dorothy’s loved ones, Frank enjoys bursting into her apartment to play sick sexual games while inhaling God-knows-what from a small portable tank. This is a disturbing scene to watch, and the voyeuristic feeling is enhanced by the fact Jeffrey is seeing all this while hiding in Dorothy’s closet.
The rational thing to do at this point would be to back away from this nightmare, but Jeffrey cannot help himself from being drawn deeper into Dorothy’s troubles and with Frank’s criminal gang. What makes it all even more disturbing is that Dorothy is not your typical, or one might even say ideal, victim since she entices Jeffrey to have sex with her, sometimes asking him to be violent. The portrayal of Rossellini’s character and the way she is treated obviously ruffled a lot of feathers when the movie was released, but nobody can deny it is one hell of a performance. It must take some special inner strength to not only do nude scenes, but also scenes of sexual violence that include Dennis Hopper trying to hump you while calling you “Mommy” and him “Daddy.”
Is Blue Velvet an enjoyable movie? I enjoyed it for the way it un-apologetically dives into the muck that sometimes hides beneath peaceful suburban settings. There is also undeniable entertainment value to Hopper’s performance, whether he is getting high on his gas or raging at Jeffrey for daring to prefer Heineken beer instead of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It is a well-made film with many moments of tension and it could be described as a film noir, albeit with a heavy emphasis on the noir part.