Blue Velvet is the fourth feature film by infamous writer/ director David Lynch. While I’ve seen Lynch’s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic Sci-Fi novel Dune (which our new writer Matt is in complete and total love with), this marks the first proper Lynch film to cross my eyes.
Blue Velvet is about a young man named Jeffery (Kyle MacLachlan) who returns from college to his home town of Lumberton after his father is hospitalized from a stroke. While walking through a field near his house, Jeffery stumbles upon a severed human ear. He brings it to a local detective, as one does, but then decides to do his own amateur snooping and sleuthing. He befriends the detective’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), a decidedly ’50s ho-hum-gee-willikers type gal, and after she provides him information on the severed ear case, Jeffery convinces her to help him break into the apartment of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer that has gotten herself associated with some very, very bad people. Heading these bad people is the perverted and psychotic Frank Booth (a supremely coked up Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and child and now forces her to perform sexual acts against her will. Jeffery, now exposed to the disgusting underworld of his otherwise idyllic hometown, feels the need to further investigate these mysterious and dangerous goings-ons in Lumberton.
Blue Velvet has often been described as a “Hardy Boys mystery on drugs” and honestly, I think that label is surprisingly accurate. This isn’t a complicated or hard to follow film, but a lot of what David Lynch shows you throughout two hours is sick, depraved, and disturbing. A lot of what he shows you is also hokey, goofy, and tongue-in-cheek, creating a form of tonal whiplash that I can’t decide whether I like or not. Blue Velvet starts and ends with an almost Stepford Wives (or Get Out for a more topical reference) vibe, where things are almost too perfect in the sleepy little town of Lumberton. The firemen wave at you from their bright red truck, where a dalmatian sits patiently on one of its platforms. Every house has a white picket fence, green-as-can-be grass, and brilliant flowers out front. The nightstruck middle of the film, however, is a one hundred and eighty degree turn from that. Savage beatings, sexual assault, and lobotomies (yes, really) all call Blue Velvet home, and their juxtaposition against the starkly different setting that is established lends them to be more powerful because of it.
And that really is the heart, I think, of Blue Velvet. It’s a strange world, and even small town America houses sex weirdos and drug addled crazies. Lynch could have easily set this in New York or Chicago, but then I think Blue Velvet wouldn’t really have as much of a point to make. People don’t assume dangerous criminals like Frank Booth live in semi-rural logging towns. There’s been a million analyses of the opening scene in Blue Velvet, of Jeffery’s father working on his lawn where he has a stroke before the camera moves deeper and deeper into the perfectly maintained grass to reveal a swarm of insects writhing over each other. The symbolism is pretty on the nose, but it works, and I’ve got nothing more to add to it that hasn’t already been said or written a hundred times over by people way smarter than me.
After the beginning of the film, however, Blue Velvet seems to change gears in multiple directions. Don’t expect any more intense visual symbolism, but expect it to turn from a satire of ’50s uber-American culture into a competent noir crime drama. The middle of the film is a powerful thing. It’s a well made thriller, but it feels different from the movie you were expecting to watch from what you got in the first ten minutes. Dennis Hopper lends himself to an amazing performance (apparently Blue Velvet helped revitalized his career) here as Frank Booth, a low key brutal villain. He’s not off committing genocide, but his ability to turn on a dime from vulnerable and perverse to furious and foaming at the mouth is truly scary. Frank Booth is widely considered one of the greatest movie villains of all time, and now that I’ve seen Blue Velvet, I’m hopping (heh) on the bandwagon. The only reason Frank Booth stands out is because of Denis Hopper’s performance. Otherwise, he’s a pretty averagely written unstable crime boss character. Isabella Rossellini is often lauded her for manic and frantic performance here but honestly, I wasn’t too impressed by her. This however, is something internal that I believe is preventing me from enjoying the movie fully. Rossellini comes across as a lesser version of Isabelle Adjani from her completely off-the-rails performance in Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 masterpiece, Possession. Every one of Rossellini’s screams resonate less powerfully and every flailing limb does so with less conviction. Blow for melodramatic blow, Adjani wins every time.
I really wish that Blue Velvet had more style. I feel awkward writing this, because as I mentioned earlier that this is my first proper David Lynch film, and I had no idea what to expect going in to it. You always hear how weird, how wild, and how disturbing Lynch’s movies are so I think that my mental over-hyping of it is to blame for diminishing my final perception of the film. By saying that I wanted the film to have more style, I meant more visual style. The film already dons a neo-noir look with shadows blanketing over each frame and the occasional vibrant or neon colours popping off the screen, but past the use of colours (or lack thereof), there isn’t much else that I was ogling at. Either a voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall style or a completely in your face assault on the senses would have worked best, I think. Blue Velvet features a lot of actual voyeurism from the various characters about as much as it offers characters nearly blowing their gaskets from screaming so much.
I think I’ve settled into a word to describe how I feel about Blue Velvet: underwhelmed. Blue Velvet is not bad. It’s competently written, acted, and shot, but between my high expectations going in to it and the amount of similarities to superior films that I can find, Blue Velvet doesn’t seem to call for a rewatch any time soon. It’s worth a watch for sure. I’ve no bad feelings about it being my first non-Dune Lynch film but barring Dennis Hopper’s balls to the wall performance, I think I’m going to forget most of it over the next few months.
Movie Pairing: Don’t Look Now. Both are surreal dramas with heavy thriller and mystery elements, and both tackle bleak, nihilistic themes in totally different ways. Definitely worth a compare and contrast.
Drink Pairing: What kind of beer do you like? Heineken? Fuck that foreign shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon! That’s what you’ll drink tonight!