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Blue Velvet (1986)

A Review of the David Lynch Classic

By Tom BakerPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 7 min read
Intrepid investigator Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) finds a human ear in BLUE VELVET.

Blue Velvet is a film I've seen so many times in my life I don't even need to re-watch it to write about it. But I did recently see it again, finding the decades have altered my perception of it, and that, perhaps, it is not shocking enough, not twisted enough to satisfy the jaded sensibilities of today's audiences. After all, today, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and his shabby cohorts seem to pale in comparison to the mass-killers and deadly murderers that infest modern society, sometimes at the highest levels of power; at other times, simply random fuses lit, waiting to blow the cold chill of death across the face of the 24/7 news cycle, before being supplanted and forgotten in the wake of the next great tragedy or slaughter.

The fictional Eisenhower cum 1980s Elysium of Lumberton seems, by comparison, a positively quaint place, like Mayberry RFD. Except with sex slavery, drug dealing, and perverted psychopaths that lop the ears off of imprisoned husbands, as a warning for their equally imprisoned (and mentally traumatized) wives to "stay alive, baby. Do it for Van Gogh."

The story is familiar to most cinema enthusiasts. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a handsome, affluent young man returned from college to his hometown after his father suffers a stroke on the lawn, in an opening scene pregnant with symbolism. (Twisted hose representing blocked arteries, a dog drinking from a strategically held water spout bringing to mind it drinking urine, and a baby, no less, coming out unsuspectingly onto the lawn. All of these are the symbolic "dream-markers" of the birth of the story.)

Beneath the lawn, a close-up of crawling ants, with the enhanced sound of mulching and crawling and chomping, a metaphor for the corruption beneath the surface of the all-American ideal we've just been shown. The film opens with lush flowers juxtaposed against a blue sky and a white picket fence. But there is a deeper reality, of course.

The town billboard of Lumberton shows a 1950s woman waving at the viewer, the camera panning over the river, and then going down the main street, to reinforce the normality of the locale, the sleepy air of total American "goodness" as exemplified in old television programs and movies. But all is NOT normal.

Jeffrey goes to visit his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), in the small hospital, where he is hooked up to painful-looking medical apparatus and cannot speak. Coming back through the same field, young Jeffrey looks down in the tall grass to discover a human ear. It is crawling with those same insects beneath the lawn. He gingerly picks it up, puts it in a paper sack, and with somber purpose goes to the local police station, wherein he meets with Detective Williams (George Dickerson) whose bizarre, flat affect affirms for the viewer that things have begun to subtly alter from "reality" to something less amenable to being scrutinized. There is a shift in events wherein they begin to make less and less logical sense.

"It looks like the ear was cut off with scissors!"

Indeed. And Jeffrey, while visiting, for obscure reasons, Detective Williams at home, meets up with his daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) a blond, pretty teenager still in high school. The two go walking through the darkened neighborhood, and Sandy informs Jeffrey of a "woman singer" her father is investigating, who "lives real close to the place where you found the ear."

"It's a strange world, isn't it?" Jeffrey observes, a line that will be repeated to underscore events to come. Jeffrey decides to sneak into the apartment of this woman, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), after seeing her glamourous yet somehow decayed and certainly incongruent self sing an off-key rendition of the song "Blue Velvet" by Bobby Vinton at a place called, with a grim undercurrent of humor, "The Slow Club."

Sandy is his accomplice in this, but she leaves Jeffrey, driving away while Jeffrey hides in a closet with a slatted door in which he can peer out. He sees Dorothy come in, undress, and then Frank enters. He verbally abuses Dorothy and then, using his infamous breathing mask, sniffs nitrous, and the two seem to enact a weird, sadomasochistic ritual that hints at incest-play, while he throws Dorothy to the floor, torments her with scissors, and dry rapes her. That's the only way I can describe it.

Frank leaves, and Jeffrey emerges. He was discovered by Dorothy just before the arrival of Frank, but now she seems lost in her world; which includes masochistic sexual play and a desire for men to "hit me."

Jeffrey leaves, and we enter through the dark part of the dream with a series of dark, nightmarish images: the distorted funhouse face of Tom Beaumont, the lion-like roar of the psychotic Frank, and the almost blowing-out of a candle flame. (Previously, the camera went through the cavernous center of an immense human ear, entering the dark, droning tunnel of the mind.)

Jeffrey begins an affair with Dorothy, but this is soon discovered by Frank, along with his weird cohorts (played respectively by Brad Dourif, J. Michael Hunter, and Jack Nance), kidnaps both of them one night, and takes them to a lounge to see Ben (Dean Stockwell) a brutal yet effeminate man in make-up and a leisure suit, who smokes his cigarettes with a huge golden filter, and who perfectly mines Roy Orbison's song "In Dreams" in a scene so hypnotic it has become nearly iconic.

Dorothy's husband and son are being held at Ben's, overseen by several nearly catatonic-seeming fat women, as well as what appears to be an oversized doll. The entire scene has a feeling of decayed and seedy glamour, a rot that seeped up from the distant past, perhaps via the aegis of the nightmare lurking at the heart of the American Dream. But, here, exteriorized upon the surface. It's nearly Kafkaesque.

"It's a strange world, isn't it?"

The film ends on a happy note, but, before that, we are treated to indelible images of a bound-and-tied corpse, and one standing up, as if rigor mortis has locked his legs after death. He has an inadvertent muscle spasm, knocking over a lamp. Is he dead? We may ask. Or is this all another permutation of the dream?

At the end of the film, the balance is restored, and the camera emerges from the tunnel of Jeffrey's ear, this time. HE has simply been having an unpleasant dream, a meditation about the corruption and darkness that may be lurking beneath the surface in his idyllic American small town. He goes into the kitchen where Sandy and his Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay) are watching a bird on the window seal with a bug in its teeth. Underscoring Sandy's line, "There's always trouble till' the robins come," a weird, nonsensical observation. All Is.

In the bird's beak, as stated, there's a bug he's devouring, which means it's either eaten up the trouble that began the picture, or that, always, the war between the two factions, of goodness and corruption, will continue, as the thing will then be within the robin, contaminating it, or feeding it, but always there, submerged; waiting.

Performances here are either understated with dream-like affect, trite, or ferocious, as Hopper makes a turn as Frank that is unforgettable (he uses the word "fuck" with every sentence, inhales from his weird nitrous breath mask, and has NO redeeming qualities as a character). Maclachlan as Jeffrey is an eager beaver "boy next door" with a few quirks and kinks. When making love to Dorothy, he ends up hitting her as she implores him to do, while we are treated to the same growling chomp of the ants and the image of the blowing candle flame (soul?). Jeffrey later weeps in his room, wondering if, as Frank later notes, he's becoming or is "like me," like Frank; within, beneath the exterior. How much of this macabre hometown corruption and the noir nightmare will seep in to corrupt his soul? the director seems to be asking.

Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens is a psychological trainwreck of terror, sexuality, despair, and masochistic tendencies. She's a character borrowed from a psychiatric unit and one that seems unlikely yet is still so compelling the viewer cannot help but have her image burned into his or her mind. But she doesn't seem sympathetic to us, either. Merely lost in a private hell. Laura Dern is the ever-ready, stock film "Girl Next Door."

Blue Velvet is a picture that hearkens back to a time when life was far simpler, a state-of-mind locale that was an ideal of what America was supposed to exemplify. But the dream of an ideal can be slowly transformed by what crawls and eats away at it, beneath the surface. We can ignore these things, it seems to suggest, but, like the camera traveling into the tunnel of the mind at the start of the film, we may find ourselves in the darkness of the absurd, of the sadistic, and the decayed.

At least, in dreams...

movie review

About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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