The discovery of a severed human ear found in a field leads a young man on an investigation related to a beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer and a group of criminals who have kidnapped her child.
Coming off the back of his biggest critical and commercial flop, David Lynch directed ‘Blue Velvet’, one of his best regarded films, and a film that influenced many other films throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. Lynch’s exploration of the seedy underbelly of small town suburbia is an erotic thriller that ramps up the suspense of its mystery and gets crazier and crazier as the plot progresses. The film follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), an inquisitive college student who discovers a severed ear in the woods by his house, which leads him to start his own investigation into the events that led to it getting there. This curiosity brings him into contact with Sandy (Laura Dern), a local policeman’s daughter, a mysterious nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini), and a psychotic madman (Dennis Hopper).
The film has been billed in many places as a neo-noir, in the sense that it follows many of the conventions of a film-noir, but with the setting updated to modern times, and this seems an apt description. MacLachlan’s good looks and boyish charm helps us to empathise with his character, despite the dangerous and perverted behaviour he exhibits as he tries to find out more about Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini). Lynch is known for his surrealism, and whilst there are elements throughout ‘Blue Velvet’, this is mostly kept to a minimum, with any unusual occurrences clearly shown to be the working of Jeffrey’s mind going into overdrive. Two of the best shots in the film are amongst the most unusual, with the camera diving under the surface of the grass to focus on some insects working as a preview of what is about to come. Underneath this seemingly idyllic small town lies a series of shady going’s on, encompassing kidnapping, violence and potentially murder, and the insects shot works extremely well on a metaphorical level.
A lot of the praise that ‘Blue Velvet’ gets is focused on Dennis Hopper’s unhinged performance as the psychotic Frank Booth, a sexually depraved maniac who spends the entire film in a fit of rage, often brought on by some unknown gas that he desperately inhales. As a villain, Booth is colourful and dangerous, but I never got past the fact that he felt a little too outlandish for the material. Dennis Hopper let loose is up there with the best experiences you can have watching a film (‘Apocalypse Now’ comes to mind), but in this case he feels almost a little too cartoonish for my liking.
After the initial intrigue as Jeffrey starts to unravel the mystery, the plot starts to meander a little and much of what Frank Booth and his gang are up to is implied rather than explicitly shown, but to an extent this works in the film’s favour. Lynch is interested in the human psyche and human behaviour, and a lot of the time that interest doesn’t extend as far as really understanding the reasons behind people’s actions. We’re never given a reason why Jeffrey wants to look into the crime beyond innocent curiosity, and it’s never explained why Frank Booth is so psychotic, but this isn’t the point Lynch is getting at. We all have our hidden secrets, our lurid desires and curiosities, and in ‘Blue Velvet’, Lynch is opening the door and letting us have a look inside. Meander may sound like a criticism but I mean that in the best possible way – ‘Blue Velvet’ is always engrossing, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen throughout the two hour runtime.
There are slight spoilers in this next passage about the ending, so read with caution if you haven’t seen the film.
One thing which really surprised me about the film was how neat the ending felt, with everything being wrapped up quite succinctly, and in a fairly happy way. Maybe I’ve been trained to expect something more unusual from Lynch, but I was half expecting the events after things between Frank and Jeffrey come to a head in Dorothy’s apartment to be part of a false ending (the best example of what I was envisaging was something like ‘Taxi Driver’ which leaves it open as to whether the events on screen are the truth, or the delusions of a wandering mind), but it was all very straightforward.
The soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti (who would go on to collaborate with Lynch on many more occasions) fits the mood really well, with a lot of cues that would later be used in ‘Twin Peaks’ on show, and the titular song ‘Blue Velvet’ featuring heavily throughout. Out of the main performances, I’ve commented on Hopper, but I really enjoyed the performances from MacLachlan, Dern and Rossellini. Rossellini’s performance is brave and uninhibited, as she spends a lot of the screentime being abused physically, sexually and mentally, whilst Dern (who looks so young!) is sweet and innocent, but clearly drawn in by Jeffrey’s warped sense of curiosity. MacLachlan is cool and charismatic, and it’s clear to see from this performance how he has gone on to collaborate with Lynch on many occasions (and to an extent given a second chance after ‘Dune’).
Overall, ‘Blue Velvet’ is a violent, erotic thriller that opens the curtains just enough to give us a peek into the darkness hiding behind closed doors, and it’s a highly visceral watch. I really enjoyed it.
Next up, ‘Wild At Heart’, also featuring Dern and Rossellini, which I’ll hopefully get round to over the next couple of weeks.
Directed By: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, Dean Stockwell and George Dickerson