Going into Blue Velvet, director David Lynch's career was on the ropes. Although Eraserhead was a cult hit and The Elephant Man earned Oscar nominations for best picture and director, Lynch had turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi in favor of an adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, which turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. With Blue Velvet, not only did Lynch rebound, he nabbed his second Oscar nomination and retained his status an important filmmaker.
Blue Velvet is both Lynch's most accessible and least accessible film. Compared to the strangeness of Eraserhead and the elliptical, dream-like plotting of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., the storyline is linear and easier to follow. There are familiar elements to latch on to: detective story, suburbia, gangsters. Yet, it is his most challenging film because of the subject matter: rape, drug use, sadomasochism, kidnapping, voyeurism and violence against women.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult movie to watch, and that made it one of the most talked about films of 1986. Siskel and Ebert had one of their most famous disagreements on their show about it. Siskel called the film "challenging, shocking, and mesmerizing," but Ebert found the treatment of actress Isabella Rossellini degrading and said the scenes of suburban satire turned the whole enterprise into a cheap joke.
On to the plot. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college visiting his father in the hospital when he finds a severed human ear in a lot. Since the town of Lumberton is a squeaky clean, postcard suburbia, this discovery is unsettling to the say the least. Working with Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of the detective he takes the ear to, Jeffrey is determined to figure out the mystery. The investigation leads him to Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), a night club singer, and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a drug-sniffing gangster and sexual fiend, and soon, Jeffrey is pulled deep into the depraved world lurking beneath the cozy exterior of Lumberton.
I'm a sucker for movies in which happy-go lucky surfaces shield deep rot and corruption, and Blue Velvet is no exception. This is encapsulated in the opening scene: white picket fences, blooming roses, trimmed grass, the fire truck going by with firemen waving at the camera. The design of the cars and houses looks straight out of Leave it to Beaver and other 1950s sitcoms. Then, the unease sets in. A man collapses from a heart attack while watering his yard, the stream of water left in a very phallic position. A toddler stumbles nearby unattended. The camera zooms into the blades of grass to reveal festering beetles. Appearances cannot be believed.
Into this world, Lynch inserts elements of film noir, including dark cinematography (lots of shadows and distorted angles), gangsters, mystery, and a femme fatale. The film noirs of the 1940s often dealt with nasty, immoral characters, although codes and standards of the time prevented them from being as visceral or explicit as Lynch is. If the daylight suburban scenes are fantasy, then the nighttime gangster scenes are nightmare. This contrast exposes the suburban element as an artifice; the depravity is the real Lumberton.
Appearance versus reality is not limited to setting. When he first sees Dorothy, Jeffrey believes her to be involved in murder, and when she catches him in her closet, she threatens him with a knife and forces him to strip naked. When Frank arrives, Jeffrey is told to hide in the closet, and he learns Dorothy is really the victim: her husband and son have been kidnapped by Frank, and he keeps her as his slave to rape and beat. This arrangement is further warped because she has been so degraded by Frank, she's masochistic.
In a career comprised of many heavies ranging from stellar (Speed) to laughable (Super Mario Bros.), Dennis Hopper has never been more frightening or intense than as Frank. He's something of an overgrown child with a disgusting, violent sexual appetite he must indulge. He swears, drinks, sniffs gas during sex, beats women, and destroys everyone he comes into contact with. In another movie, this performance might be over-the-top, but here, the behavior is matched by his actions. How he acts and speaks is backed up by what he does. Few movie villains are allowed so derangement.
Credit must also be given Rossellini. Not only is she called upon to be put through the wringer in ways not many actresses would be willing, she captures all the dimensions of her character: mysterious, seductive, vulnerable, traumatized, and dangerous. Similarly, MacLachlan and Dern are perfect as the all-American youths finding themselves in over their heads.
Of course, this being a Lynch film, there's weird stuff everywhere. One scene, in which Frank and his gang take Jeffrey on a joyride, has a heavily made-up, stoned pimp played by Dean Stockwell lip syncing Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" with a lighting fixture for a microphone while another gang member (Brad Dourif) dances with a snake. Curiously, Stockwell's is the only character not intimidated by Frank; they almost seem like equals. The scene carries an air of menace because, even though Dorothy is allowed to visit her son here, the brief reunion occurs behind closed doors (denying the audience a moment of comfort), and she can be heard shouting. Although nowhere as violent or graphic as other scenes, this scene is one of the most unsettling.
Although violent and filled with difficult subject matter, Blue Velvet is Lynch's masterpiece. It's challenging, shocking, and mesmerizing in portraying the seedy underbelly of society and how sex and violence are linked together and ingrained in human nature. I guess I agree with Siskel.