Blue Velvet (1986)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-11-08 09:17

Written and Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern, and Dennis Hopper

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ĒIt's a strange world.Ē

For the past thirty years, itís arguable that the strangest place in Hollywood has been the mind of David Lynch. Since his debut film, the surreal, avant-garde tour de force Eraserhead, much of Lynchís output has the stuff of nightmares: mutated, inhuman creatures, bizarre murder mysteries, fractured psyches that have crumbled under the weight of broken dreams, and the list goes on. For the past decade or so, the seedy underbelly of Hollywood itself has been Lynchís target; however, before he ever traveled down a Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, Lynch was ambling right through main street in small town Americana. It was here that he revealed that one doesnít have to travel far to find trouble; indeed, one only needs to closely examine those seemingly perfect white picket fences and perfectly mowed green lawns to find something dark and sinister lying beneath. This effort culminated in the popular television series, Twin Peaks, but it started in earnest a few years earlier with Blue Velvet, the film that still stands as Lynchís masterwork of psychological horror.

Lumberton, USA is an idyllic slice of American pie thatís seemingly perfect in every respect. Even when one of its most respected citizens, Mr. Beaumont, experiences a near fatal stroke, it simply results in his dutiful son Jeffrey coming home from college to check up on him and run the hardware store in his stead. Life, seemingly, will roll on without incident. That is, until Jeffrey finds a severed ear in a field on his way home and it becomes obvious that something is rotten here. With the help of a police detectiveís daughter, Jeffrey is lead into a web of intrigue involving Lumbertonís criminal underworld, particularly the activities of a psychopath named Frank Booth, who has targeted a nightclub singer for his sadistic proclivities. As Jeffrey descends further, he discovers the true meaning of human perversity and depravity, perhaps at the cost of his own decency.

Narratively speaking, Blue Velvet is a much more accessible film than most of Lynchís work. Itís a relatively straightforward story that lacks the hyper-surreal and symbolic qualities of something like Eraserhead or Inland Empire. Instead, itís a noir film at its core, complete with a naÔve protagonist, a troubled, dark woman, and a descent into darkness and madness. That said, there is nothing simple about Blue Velvet. After all, it wouldnít be a David Lynch film without some sense of challenge or hyper-reality. Per usual, Lynch isnít content to simply relay a pretty universal rite of passage (the discovery that the world is not such a nice place after all, no matter how pretty it looks). No, the journey for Jeffrey must be one of the most nightmarish imaginable, one where depravity and sadism are pushed to extreme, almost absurd levels. Just as Eraserhead is a most elaborate, symbolic, and outrageous representation of a manís feelings of inadequacy and broken dreams, Blue Velvet is a most violent, unflinching journey about one characterís simple realization that life is ugly.

It goes without saying, then, that this still manages to be a bizarre cinematic experience. Because of the bizarre actions of many characters and Lynchís direction itself, the film feels like a cross between a daydream and a nightmare. The journey starts as a hastily constructed fantasy of Jeffrey (who just wants to play detective), but it soon spirals down a bizarre, grand guignol rabbit hole. Just when you think things hit a peak (an early contender is nitrate-huffing Frankís vulgar assault on Dorothy), the film manages to become even more strange (it all climaxes in the now infamous ďIn DreamsĒ sequence and its immediate aftermath). Lynch is meticulous as ever when heís pulling the madness altogether; visually, something is just a bit off or askew about the whole thing. The filmís editing often makes it play out like a cheap, television detective show not unlike the one playing on Mrs. Beaumontís television early in the film; at other times, itís a taut, tense, Hitchcockian thriller, and Lynch stitches it altogether to form some sort of neo-noir pastiche that hasnít been replicated since.

The film is built on the backs of some strong performances as well. Kyle MacLachlanís performance shows a lot of range as he develops from a naÔve college student to a disturbed man horrified by his own actions at times. Laura Dern is perfectly cast as the perfect girl next door, the policemanís daughter who gets much more than she ever bargained for. Of all the characters, her innocence seems most precious, and watching it get destroyed is horrifying at times. Isabella Rossellini is the epitome of traditional dark woman--sheís obviously flawed and vulnerable, but sheís also alluring and irresistible to Jeffrey. Her performance is perhaps the most complex of all here, as she has to be convincing enough to lure Jeffrey in, yet also dark enough to signify danger.

The lynchpin performance, however, is Dennis Hopperís turn as Frank Booth. In the 25 years since Blue Velvetís release, Booth has become one of cinemaís all time iconic madmen. Vulgar, crass, and violent, Frank Booth represents the worst of humanity. Heís a vile pimp and drug pusher, not to mention a sadist who takes pleasure in doling out sexual punishment. Thereís a scene where Jeffrey wonders aloud why people like Frank exist in the world; it is, of course, a valid question for which there is no satisfying answer. The film doesnít even bother to provide one. Instead, it only offers violent episode after violent episode, and there is no real method to Frankís madness. Though there a fleeting moments (such as the aforementioned "In Dreams" sequence) that reveal that Frank might be tortured by some tragic past, these moments are all too brief and somehow make it all even more inexplicable. This is perhaps the most horrifying thing that Blue Velvet has to offer: the realization that depravity and evil exist in the form of Frank Booth simply because they can, and they can operate right under our nose.

That, ultimately, is Blue Velvet in a nutshell: itís a story about bad things happening to seemingly innocent people in a seemingly perfect environment. Lynch canít even bother to give us a Hollywood happy ending, even though the film is so desperately trying to convince us he is. By the end of the film, everything is rather forcibly and hastily tied up in a neat little package; however, subtle hints tell us that this ending is just as artificial as the wooden robin chirping out in the idyllic landscape. Earlier in the film, weíre told that robins represent ďthe blinding light of loveĒ that will drive all the darkness away, and this does seem to be the case by the end. But something about it all feels too good to be true, too artificially crafted (what else would we expect from a place called Lumberton?). This especially seems to be Lynchís shot at all those early Hollywood noirs that ended a little bit too happily, where our hero triumphantly emerged out of the darkness, having learned some inner truth about himself. Here, it just feels like Jeffrey has learned or confronted nothing, and itís as if the Lumberton is content to continually overlook the underbelly that was rotting beneath its soil.

As such, Blue Velvet ends the same way as it begins: with all too inviting and nostalgic shots of small town America that seems to be too perfectly constructed, as if all the intervening moments were just a bad dream. Unfortunately, itís all the violence and sadism that feels all too real, with the bookending segments feeling, appropriately, like Twin Peaks. Itís not so much the filmís violence or Frankís behavior thatís most terrifying here. Instead, itís the haunting quality of the whole experience: Lynchís visuals, musical choices, Angelo Badalamentiís dreamlike score all combine to form a cinematic masterpiece that lingers long after itís over. Lynchís work both before and after Blue Velvet have been exceptional, but this one still stands as the best heís had to offer so far. Thankfully, MGM has treated the film well on DVD, having offered up two editions that do the film justice. The first release from 2000 features a decent presentation: the transfer isnít the sharpest and shows signs of edge enhancement, but itís solid otherwise. The stereo soundtrack is also adequate, as it provides crisp dialogue and rich musical tones. The lone special feature is the filmís theatrical trailer, so if you want more, youíll want to check out the 2002 Special Edition that also boasts a making of documentary, a somewhat superior transfer, and a 5.1 track. Either way, you canít go wrong with this one, as it features one of cinemaís great auteurs behind the camera and one of its finest performances in front of it. Settle in with this one, and be prepared to enjoy it for the long haul, and donít forget to bring a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon along with you. Essential!

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