There’s always an unsettling darkness stirring underneath Small town America, and no film revealed that better than David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet. At first glance, everything about this film screams 50’s suburbia, but one hard look inside is all it’ll take to reel you in. Like the movie itself, the town of Lumberton will trick you with familiar songs and smiling faces, only to sucker punch you in the throat with rabid, oedipal savagery. Sure, the world around you will get hazy, and you’ll blackout a few times, but once you wake up, you’ll see. You’ll really see. That gas. Her closet. His rage, and her blue robe. These are all love letters, fucker. Straight from your heart.
David Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, a young college student on break who returns to Lumberton in order to help tend to his Dad’s hardware store after a stroke. He doesn’t seem too pleased to come back to his old life at first, but his whole summer changes when he comes across a strange sight in the grass: a severed ear, rotting under a swarm of ants.
It is from here that we begin our descent into the darkness.
After submitting the ear to the Police, Jeffrey becomes reacquainted with Detective Williams, the lead investigator on a related case, and his daughter Sandy, portrayed by the incomparable Laura Dern. It’s through Sandy that Jeffrey learns that both the ear, and her father’s case, may have a possible connection: the nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (portrayed by Isabella Rosselini). Despite being told to stay out of the case, Jeffrey & Sandy soon concoct a plan to sneak into Vallens’ apartment to search for any clues that could further the investigation. The scheme basically involves Jeffrey posing as an Exterminator so that he can snatch away Dorothy’s spare key. With Sandy keeping watch in the car outside the building, Jeffrey hopes to sneak in, look for clues and get out before Dorothy gets back. It sounds simple of course, but like all plans, they tend to get fucked FAST.
So the first part of the plan works. Jeffrey’s a bugkiller, he meets Dorothy, he scopes the scene and gets the key with no issue. As part two of the plan approaches, Jeffrey and Sandy stop by to see Dorothy sing at the local nightclub. I’m guessing they came by to have a better sense of where Dorothy is before they do more sleuthing, but what happens next is what makes the film so dreamy and iconic. Draped in eerie blue lights, with long, red curtains behind her, Dorothy sings a stunning rendition of Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet that’s so full of class and melancholy that you’ll remember it long after you’ve finished the film (this is especially so in the second singing scene later on). Like what we’ve come to know in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, scenes like this echo that strange yet familiar feeling we see from the Roadhouse, where somehow, ordinary things like singing a song in a murky bar seem ethereal, dark and in another plane of existence.
However, our heroes can’t stay in the bar for long. Jeffrey and Sandy rush to Dorothy’s apartment, with Jeffrey being the one to sneak in while Sandy stays in the car to honk the horn should Dorothy return. Through a series of fuck-ups however, Jeffrey soon realizes that Dorothy’s back and he finds himself hidden in the closet, peering from the darkness through sheets of light. From here, his role undergoes a savage reversal as the young sleuth suddenly becomes the voyeur.
Dorothy isn’t stupid however, and she spots Jeffrey without fail.
Instead of reporting Jeffrey to the authorities however, Dorothy instead takes interest in him, with a strange mixture of confusion and sexual curiosity. However, that’s cut short in order to introduce us to the villain of this story: Frank Booth. He knocks on the door and she knows exactly who it is. Dorothy then hides Jeffrey back into the closet in order to keep him safe, which not only places him back into the role of voyeur, but shows us our first real glimpse of Lumberton’s dark side.
As Frank Booth enters the scene, we already get a sense of how fearful Dorothy is of him. He barks orders, demands booze and, most of all, demands compliance. He demands servitude. He demands her to be called ‘mommy.’ And he does all of this while taking in a strange gas from a hidden respirator in his jacket. All of a sudden however, Frank convulses into an unstable mass of madness as he goes straight to Dorothy, mauling her in a mix of abuse, humiliation, gas-breathing, snarling and oedipal dry-humping. It’s a ferocious scene that cuts to the core of baby-boomer misogyny, leaving us, and Jeffrey, all in tatters.
Once Frank leaves, Jeffrey emerges from his voyeuristic shroud to console Dorothy. She embraces him and not only displays affection for him, but demands that he be with her as she calls him by her husband’s name. As the film progresses, Jeffrey soon finds himself balancing his time with Sandy, his own investigation into Lumberton’s seedy underbelly, and his growing sexual relationship with Dorothy, who has her own dark desires as well. During this time, we go on a journey with Jeffrey to witness how Frank Booth terrorizes Dorothy in a surreal, night-time world where dreams come to life in a strange veil of drugs, sex and 60’s pop music. This is best exemplified in one of my favorite scenes, where Frank Booth and his cronies discover Dorothy’s relationship with Jeffrey. What ensues is a midnight joyride full of strange questions, profanity and a meetup with the effeminate criminal known as Ben (suave fucking Ben to you, you fucker…). It’s something that I don’t want to spoil here, but it really encapsulates what’s both daring AND jarring about Blue Velvet.
Overall, Blue Velvet gets a standing ovation from me. It’s a dark and mysterious film that feels like a dream wrapped in a nightmare. Filled with madness and mercy, the dark and the divine, Blue Velvet hits all the right notes for a thriller, and possibly a horror film (though that’s stretching it), but does just enough to make itself so much more. With that said, there is still so much of David Lynch’s oeuvre that demands my attention, including Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, but this film is the one that I keep coming back to. This is especially the case now that Twin Peaks: The Return is all over. For me, this film just has the right amount of Lynchian horror, quirkiness and production design that I just find myself saying, “Well shit, it’s like the early Twin Peaks, but crazier!” All in all, Blue Velvet is a masterpiece and it demands your attention. Now, if you’re on the fence about David Lynch (especially since his track record for diversity is pretty suspect), I urge you to simply give it a try and watch it all the way until the end because the vision behind it all is one of a kind. Only a handful of films can make the ordinary seem so hellish, and Blue Velvet delivers it all in the form of candy-colored dreams.