Movie Review – ‘Blue Velvet’
Written by Jordan King on October 30, 2018
It’s Halloween time, which means I’ll be dressing up as something that was funny 6+ months ago but has since lost its flavor. Of course, this time of year also calls for watching scary movies. Halloween, The Night of The Living Dead, and It are all cool if deranged killers, zombies, or sewer-clowns are your thing, but if you’re like me, nothing is quite as scary as a more subtle kind of horror–one that uncovers a dark reality that is hiding in plain sight–that, if you’re not looking for it, might otherwise go unnoticed.
One of my favorite films that exemplifies this kind of horror is David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. Equal parts beautiful, surreal, noir, and downright terrifying, Blue Velvet explores the notion of a darker reality right in front of us so expertly and so damn oddly.
I first discovered Lynch by watching legendary TV show Twin Peaks, and I quickly became enthralled. His use of timing and surreal juxtaposition of images were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Released four years before the premiere of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, is very much in the same vein.
Set in the small logging town of Lumberton, North Carolina, the film opens with shots of hyper-idealized American life: a school aid stops traffic so students can cross a crosswalk; a fire truck strolls down the road, while a man hangs off the side and waves kindly; and bright red roses grow in front of a white picket fence. All the while, Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” plays. A beautiful glimpse at the American dream.
But that dream quickly becomes a nightmare when one Tom Beaumont suffers from a stroke while watering his lawn. He tumbles over, still clutching the hose as it sprays into the air, which prompts a neighbor’s dog to drink from the hose viciously. As this happens, Vinton’s warm croons dissolve into harsh noise, and we move beneath the surface of the grass, where we are shown insects crawling on top of one another.
Effectively, the sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film–underneath the surface of beauty, there is something far uglier waiting to be uncovered.
Though Beaumont survives the stroke, he is severely incapacitated, and his son, a geeky college student named Jeffrey (played by Kyle MacLachlan), must returns home to take over his father’s hardware store. But right away Jeffrey finds that his old hometown is not the same as when he left it. While on a stroll through his old stomping grounds, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear lying in a field, and, naturally, he does what anybody would do: picks it up with his bear hands and turns it into the police, who tell him the ear must have been cut off with a pair of scissors.
And so the mystery of the film is introduced–who done it?
Though the police deter Jeffrey from answering this question himself, his curiosity is too much to bear, and he decides to try solving the case on his own–albeit, by highly illegal means–with added help from the Chief Detective’s daughter, Sandy (played by Laura Dern). This formulaic approach to story feels typical of a noir film, and in many ways it is, but where Lynch’s work distinguishes itself is its off-the-wall characters.
Early on in his journey, Jeffrey crosses paths with Dorothy Valens (played by Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer who, in a blue velvet dress, seduces him. The two form a strange bond, and Jeffrey soon learns that Dorothy has a son and husband who are being held captive by a man named Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper), who becomes the film’s main antagonist.
I should note here that Frank is perhaps the weirdest villain I have ever seen on screen; Hopper undoubtedly steals the show with his performance. In between deep inhales of an unknown gas from an plastic mask (as if he is harboring a cocaine addiction), Frank curses absurdly in nearly every line of dialogue; he is wildly erratic for no reason, lashing out at anyone who simply looks him in the eyes; and he frequently displays hyper-masculinity, demanding, on multiple occasions, that Pabst Blue Ribbon is superior to Heineken (which is the most unconventional beer commercial I have ever seen), and asking others to feel his muscles.
If Jeffrey wants to solve the mystery of the severed ear, he must help Dorothy Valens, and if he wants to do that, he must confront Frank Booth.
Without giving away too many spoilers, Blue Velvet is simply a story about discovery and identity. When Jeffrey returns home from college, he discovers an entirely different world than the one from his childhood. In doing so, he experiences an awakening of sorts that many who leave their hometown eventually find to be true.
On the other hand, Frank Booth’s aggressive nature, paired with his vehement pride (e.g., his excessive lust for the mysterious gas substance and his disdain for any beer that is not PBR) and over-the-top anger (e.g., his consistent swearing), is representative of somebody who has never stepped foot outside of their own narcissism. By showcasing this behavior in excess, Lynch effectively illustrates the absurdity of many practices that are normalized in American culture.
Comparing Frank to Jeffrey, it is evident that they are polar opposites. While Frank is rude and aggressive, Jeffrey is polite gentle. When they share screen time, this dynamic makes for very tense scenes. One of which involves Frank applying lipstick, kissing Jeffrey, and then reciting from Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”: “‘In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk to you. In dreams, you’re mine. All the time. Forever.’ You’re just like me.”
Again, without giving away too many spoilers, this scene is one that haunts me to my core for reasons I cannot quite explain.
I suppose that this is the essence of Lynch’s work; it is highly visceral, and therefore it tends to evoke a feeling more than a conscious response. As a result, an unusual participatory role is placed on the audience, who, despite the film’s resolution, are left to decide for themselves what it all means. This invites a second viewing, which some might find dissatisfying, but I would argue makes for a more enjoyable film.
And while I don’t think Blue Velvet surpasses the triumph of Twin Peaks as an overall body of work, Blue Velvet is still a solid movie that any David Lynch fans will likely find worth watching. If you’re not familiar with Lynch, I would recommend starting with Twin Peaks.
But then again, what do I know? As I write this, I realize how much time I’ve just spent spitting about some movie from 30 years ago, and still I haven’t come up with a relevant costume idea. If I go as a guy who incessantly shouts about PBR, do you think anybody would get it?