Now it’s dark
After finding critical and commercial success with The Elephant Man—earning his first Oscar nominations for directing and screenplay—David Lynch became bankable enough to mount what would end up a large-scale disaster in Dune. Whereas many would probably count the latter as a failure across the board, the truth is that the sci-fi epic is much more attuned to the auteur’s sensibilities. Anyone who had seen his debut feature Eraserhead in all its strange surrealistic glory would concur, but by that time there were surely not many (and those who did seek it out after loving The Elephant Man may have tried to forget they had). This created a make-or-break moment in Lynch’s career. Was it possible to marry his uniquely warped worldview and mainstream success together?
Thankfully the answer arrived as a resounding “Yes” with Blue Velvet taking the world by storm—even if it needed a few years to truly be appreciated as the masterpiece of American cinema it is. This tale of idyllic Lumberton and the darkness residing below its seemingly honest façade of suburban bliss was unapologetic in its heightened, soap opera-y aesthetic and extreme violence shining a light on the nightmarish existence of bona fide monsters too many refuse to believe are walking right under their noses. Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) hometown appears sleepily unassuming, a starter society many his age had already left for better opportunities. Just returned to assist his ailing father, Jeffrey cannot help finally seeing the dark secrets surrounding him with a newfound outsider’s curiosity.
It starts with an ear lying in a nearby field showing the first signs of decomposition as a colony of ants crawl over its spiraled folds. This is the second instance of insect infestation—a vile juxtaposition of exoskeletal strength against human vulnerability, shadowy creatures opposite a hopeful light gradually dimming. Lynch pulls no punches injecting the latter with a “Leave It to Beaver” utopian tone from Jeffrey’s boob-tube entranced mother and aunt worrying about the boy traveling too far out of the neighborhood to local detective John Williams (George Dickerson) coming across as a country bumpkin more willing to give clichéd fatherly advice than believe he sits upon a cesspool of filth. His reaction to the severed ear is a “Gee golly” grin.
This type of incongruous interaction to the reality unfolding around them is Lynch in his element. It’s impossible to watch Blue Velvet now and not think about how perfect a stylistic prologue it is to “Twin Peaks” from the depiction of a peaceful community’s vicious underbelly to the heightened performances existing as though in a dream to the tense visual and aural collages of malice turning men into animals with slomotion roars. There’s the world we wish we lived in and the one in which we do, both constantly in flux to overlap and intertwine until we begin seeing two sides forming: the naïve and the dangerous. Lynch has consciously split predator and prey here with but one character caught in the middle to bridge them.
Jeffrey is thrust into a position of either hero or victim as his curiosity finds him gravitating towards dangerous corners of Lumberton no one suspects are there. Detective Williams’ daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) provides him hints of evidence gleaned from eavesdropping on her father and suddenly a mysterious lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is put in their crosshairs. They’re amateur sleuths chasing the excitement of escaping their textbook small town adolescences, embracing the uncertainty they’ve always craved. But while Sandy seeks to get closer to the bad boy co-ed, Jeffrey’s eyes are set on the exotic woman somehow embroiled in a criminal investigation. No one could have guessed the severity of her situation or the psychosexual experiences ready to derail everything still to come.
Is Jeffrey a detective or pervert? What are his motivations sneaking into Dorothy’s apartment? We want to believe it’s a continuation of his curiosity in the ear and its origins—anything is better than working his father’s department store—but there’s definitely more to it once we watch him gaze upon this woman for the first time under blue light singing the tune Bobby Vinton made famous. Suddenly the film is less about the community and the volatile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper delivering one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history) gleefully up-rooting its innocence than it is about Jeffrey teetering over the line of moral goodness. He’s the wholesome boy next door and yet one step into darkness opens him to let it seep in.
The dark hole of despair envelops him as Dorothy latches on, her sanity fractured by the horrible things Frank has done. Booth himself becomes a sort of Satan-like figure not to be touched, taking the boy for a joyride into the depths of Lumberton’s hellish backbone of drugs, kidnapping, corrupt cops, and rape. As the helium gas from his personal rig alters Frank’s voice and psyche to that of a child craving an Oedipal outlet he has the ferocity to force upon his victims, the case surrounding Jeffrey works as a hallucinatory catalyst for him to fall deeper and deeper into its clutches. He’s too young to understand the ramifications, treating it like the shows his mother watches: noir fiction. But Frank and his insects are very real.
There’s so much to love about Blue Velvet. With memorable scenes (Dean Stockwell lip-synching Roy Orbison‘s “In Dreams”), unforgettable characters (Frank Booth’s wide-eyed insanity), or Lynch’s confidence in meshing satire with dramatic reality’s horrors, its unavoidable datedness somehow makes it more timeless because the message and metaphor are born from its 80s origins. Including an experimental aesthetic sharply cutting vignettes of atmospheric dread and tension render it a trendsetter while its embrace of over-the-top theatrics as a way to augment its terror rather than subvert it a masterful stroke of visionary genius. The ending may fall too far into its fairytale desire of good conquering evil, but it works because the sheen is too perfect to be true. How quickly we forget the sewer raging beneath our feet.