Like Twin Peaks which followed four years later, Blue Velvet is David Lynch's deconstruction of the 1950's, suburban, small town, Norman Rockwell idyll. It begins with a litany of wholesome images: rescue trucks bearing genial firemen, crossing guards guiding winsome children across the street, yellow tulips blowing in the breeze, and an older gentleman dutifully watering his immaculate lawn.
Some of which can be briefly glimpsed in the film's deceptively tame trailer:
But since this is David Lynch's version of the American Camelot, it isn't long before our hirsute gardener is prone on the ground while his pet Jack Russell terrier playfully frolics in the jet of water coming from the now-upturned hose. Then the camera tracks away into the surrounding lawn, past the blades of grass and into the earth below, which is roiling with beetles and other vermin. The message is clear: Lynch intends to move past the false edifice of reality and plunge us into the dark netherworld which lurks below.
The stroke victim is revealed to be the father of Kyle MacLachlan's character, Jeffrey Beaumont. Even here, Lynch evokes shades of the actor who played prototypically wholesome all-American dad Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver. It's just another sly wink from Lynch who would have us believe that even squeaky-clean 50's-era T.V. dads had hang-ups.
Jeffrey returns to his timber-obsessed home town of Lumberton to visit his ailing dad and take care of the family hardware store. While walking home from the hospital one day, he makes a grisly discovery: a severed ear discarded in a field. He takes the ear to the police where Detective John Williams (George Dickerson) seems oddly nonplussed by its discovery.
Jeffrey soon meets the detective's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) who suggests a possible link to the ear and a mysterious lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Intrigued by the burgeoning mystery, Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's apartment to glean the truth but soon finds himself way over his head courtesy of the gas-sniffing psychotic thug Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Dorothy is the unfortunate nexus for Frank's deviant interpretations of love and sex he seems willing to say or do anything to posses and control her. Pretty soon Jeffrey's amateur investigations open up a veritable Pandora's Box of mayhem which invariably begins to infect his own psyche.
Midway through my first viewing of Blue Velvet, I began to realize, to my horror, that I was at the mercy of a director who was willing to do anything to shock and disturb. Like so many other great films of note (such as Reservoir Dogs, The Exorcist and Deliverance), Lynch quickly lets us know that all bets are off.
Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth really showcased his aptitude for bringing scary, intense, and unconventional characters to life. Booth's bizarre sexual proclivities (which include dry-humping, huffing amyl nitrite and gagging himself with the titular fabric swatches) seems terrifyingly real if only because it's hard to imagine that Lynch actually came up with something so weird. Hopper really is tremendous here, walking into every room like a caged animal and employing the most shocking and profane language in order to bully what he wants from people.
As horrible as the language and moments of sexual violence can be, there are also some delirious scenes of coal-black humor. If I'm not mistaken, this may be the very first time I've ever heard a character in a movie referred to as a "fuck". When Frank grills Jeffrey about his favorite beer and his terrified hostage replies "Heineken" Booth freaks out and screams "Heineken!? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"
Speaking of MacLachlan, he really does a great job embodying a complicated and unconventional protagonist. Indeed he's the perfect cinema avatar for Lynch: semi-formal, polite, freshly-scrubbed, and just a bit off-center. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the director is working through his own complicated thoughts when Jeffrey first indulges in voyeurism and then slips into moments of violence.
Hopper's performance may be the film's most flamboyant, but the most daring is surely Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Valens. When the film was first released, critic Roger Ebert was genuinely upset by Lynch forcing his lead actress to film scenes of "public degradation". Rossellini has since gone on record to say that these brutally impartial moments were integral to depicting the character as "somebody beautiful...yet...completely destroyed inside", essentially a "broken doll".
In the film's most shocking and contentious scene, Dorothy stumbles naked and bruised onto the front lawn of Jeffrey's house. It's certainly a horrible moment but it's also based on something Lynch actually witnessed as a child, a sight that was clearly tragic, not titillating. In Rossellini's own words, the scene is evocative of Nick Ut's famous photo of a young Vietnamese girl who's had her clothes and skin burned off by a napalm attack. Although clearly a distasteful image, it's also unforgettable and representative of something much larger.
The principal cast is rounded out by some tremendous supporting roles. Long-time Lynchian muse Laura Dern is the angelic flip-side of Dorothy's femme fatale, and she's possessed with just enough dark curiosity to kick-start the initial mystery. Dean Stockwell also has a memorable appearance as Ben, an effete, nearly-comatose lounge lizard. With his vacant, lip-synced rendition of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" (while creepily underlit by a work lamp), Stockwell instantly creates one of the most oddly iconic scenes in cinema history.
Indeed, Lynch proves to be a master of using music to establish moods. Witness Rossellini's Bobby-Vinton-by-way-of-Nico-from-Velvet-Underground rendition of the title track. Also Julee Cruise's melancholy ballad "Mysteries of Love" is used to tremendous impact, although I suspect that it'd probably be a bigger party-killer then "Hotel California".
All told, Blue Velvet is a consistently startling, brave and innovative work of cinematic art. It's the product of a single director's undiluted vision instead of decision by committee. If you're tired of the doldrums inherent in cookie-cutter, paint-by-number screenplays, then look no further. Just be warned: you'll be privy to a lot of genuinely dark and disturbing subject matter before that wacky clockwork robin shows up.