Blue Velvet (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Blue Velvet is David Lynch in peak form, and represents (to date) his most accomplished motion picture. It is a work of fascinating scope and power that rivals any of the most subversive films to reach the screens during the '80s. For Lynch, the sometimes-auteur, sometimes-illusionist, Blue Velvet was the movie that cemented his credentials as a filmmaker in a way that none of his previous efforts were able to. When pundits refer to something as "Lynchian," they are typically referencing the themes and stylistic approach that is on display in this movie.

Blue Velvet is one of Lynch's more coherent movies. The storyline is challenging, but not obtuse. It's linear and easy to follow for someone who cares to pay attention. This is not the case with some of Lynch's recent efforts – the television series "Twin Peaks" and movies like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have led to much head-scratching and groping in the dark for decoder rings. Compared to them, Blue Velvet is straightforward. Lynch's trademark weirdness is very much on display, but, in this outing, he has channeled it for a purpose other than merely shocking and confusing an audience.

Blue Velvet opens in a small-town setting (the generic community is called "Lumberton, U.S.A.") that would be at home almost anywhere in suburban America. The protagonist is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student home during summer break to visit his ailing father, who is in the hospital. While wandering through fields near his home one day, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear. He takes it to the police station, where Detective Williams (George Dickerson) bags the evidence and opens the case. However, instead of leaving things to the professionals, Jeffrey becomes obsessed by the ear and discovering to whom it belongs. Along with Detective Williams' helpful daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey decides to do a little detective work on his own. His investigations lead him to the apartment of nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).

Dorothy is involved in an abusive S&M relationship with a psychopath named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and son Ostensibly, she allows Frank to brutalize her in order to keep her loved ones safe, but the reality is that she is a masochist and gets off on being beaten and raped. Jeffrey discovers this first hand when he begins an affair with Dorothy and learns that she likes her sex rough – rougher than he is initially willing to provide. Before long, however, Jeffrey is being dragged deeper into Dorothy and Frank's world of violence and depravity.

Watching Blue Velvet is not pretty, and requires a strong constitution. Lynch is a demanding director, and some of the scenes in this movie take an unflinching look at the darker side of human nature. Frank is a monster without redeeming qualities who destroys, either physically or psychologically, everything he touches. Dorothy is diseased, but perhaps not beyond redemption, although Frank has corrupted her soul and stolen her happiness. Lynch does what he needs to do to show these things, and much of it is ugly.

One of the most controversial scenes in the film involves a bruised, completely naked Isabella Rossellini stumbling around outside. Some critics have found this scene to be degrading. But degrading to whom? Surely not Rossellini, who, as an actress, was required to do her job. To the audience? Perhaps, but that's the point. The scene is not gratuitous or exploitative. Lynch included it for a specific reason. Its ability to disturb is a testimony to its power. It is neither forgotten nor easily dismissed. By causing us to flinch, it displays its effectiveness by depicting the level of despair to which Dorothy has descended. She has hit rock bottom.

The storyline is not what it initially appears to be, although there is a clue early in the film where Lynch is heading. Blue Velvet opens with images exported from the American Dream: perfect little houses with white picket fences and impeccably manicured yards. A man collapses while watering his lawn, and the camera, after following him to the ground, burrows into it, parting the blades of grass to reveal a colony of swarming bugs. The message is clear – perfection often hides deeply-rooted rot. Dreams can easily turn into nightmares. Corruption is everywhere, even in places that seem immune to it. These themes, and others about the pernicious influence of evil, are explored in some depth throughout Blue Velvet.

For a while, Blue Velvet appears to be a mystery. And, with two such all-American, clean cut detectives, it could be mistaken for something out of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series. But, as much as Jeffrey and Sandy might be at home in a simplistic adolescent story, Dorothy and Frank are film noir refugees – the femme fatale and the terrifying killer. By cross-pollinating the genres, Lynch is able to satirize Americana while making a grim statement about human nature. The movie contains humor, albeit of the blackest sort.

Although the plot is relatively uncluttered, there are numerous examples of the offbeat stylistic quirkiness for which the director has become known. Two instances stand out. The first occurs when Frank and some friends take Jeffrey and Dorothy on a joyride to the place where her son is being held captive. This visit has a nightmarish quality to it, with all of the characters acting in a strange way, as if they are half-asleep or stoned. It's a peculiar, disquieting scene, a séance for the living damned. Equally disturbing is the tableau that Jeffrey walks in on late in the film when he goes to Dorothy's apartment. He discovers two bodies, one of which is standing upright.

It's intentionally difficult to pinpoint the time frame in which Blue Velvet transpires. Some clues indicate that events may be happening in contemporary or near-contemporary times (the early 1980s). Others, such as the abundance of older cars, the styles of clothing and hair, and the use of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet," evoke an earlier era, perhaps the '50s or early '60s. By juxtaposing the '80s with the '50s, Lynch takes the movie out of time, ensuring that it will never become dated. He also manages to remind us that, while many things have changed since the "Father Knows Best" generation, the essence of humanity has remained constant. Other movies have argued the same thing, but they generally do so from a more positive perspective. Lynch supplants nobility with depravity.

The four main actors could not be more perfectly chosen for their parts. Kyle MacLachlan, who would go on to play Agent Cooper in "Twin Peaks," is the perfect clean-cut boy. MacLachlan brings a sense of innocence to this part that serves him well. Because of that quality, we can identify with Jeffrey as he begins his downward spiral into Dorothy and Frank's hellish world. Laura Dern portrays the good girl – prim, proper, and much different from her character in Lynch's Wild at Heart. Isabella Rossellini captures the full breadth of Dorothy's complex personality – her vulnerability and degeneracy, her desperation and longing, her hatred of Frank and need for him. The role demands much of her that goes beyond the nudity. Finally, there's Dennis Hopper, who, in a lifetime of playing vicious creatures, has never essayed one as sinister and purely evil as Frank, one of the most horrific villains ever to grace the silver screen. There is nothing redeemable about this man. Hopper recognizes it and embraces it as only he can.

The only hint of optimism comes at the end of Blue Velvet, when the sun emerges, the sky is blue, a robin appears, and everything seems right in the world. Once again, we are presented with the veneer of perfection. Then we notice that the robin has a beetle in its beak, and we realize where that beetle comes from. The movie has gone full circle. The American Dream is alive and well, but the rot and corruption are still there, concealed beneath the blades of grass, ready to emerge.

Blue Velvet (United States, 1986)

Ranked #56 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1986-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1