Blue Velvet - 1986
Director(s): David Lynch
Writer(s): David Lynch
Cinematography by: Frederick Elmes
Editor(s): Duwayne Dunham
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern and Dean Stockwell
Synopsis: 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 psychopathic criminals who have kidnapped her child (IMDB).
When it comes to cult classic movies, there isn’t a more prevalent name than David Lynch. Most, if not all, of his movies, are considered to some extent a cult classic. From his directorial debut, Eraserhead, to last year’s return of his series Twin Peaks, Lynch’s work is always divisive but always worth a conversation. After talking Mulholland Drive last year, I wanted to explore his catalog a bit further. I saw that Prime had Blue Velvet on and, well, that’s a look behind my sophisticated process of picking what movies I talk about. So, let’s talk about it.
To my surprise this is the most straightforward plot I’ve seen from a Lynch project. While it still has the trademark jarring tones and subjects you come to expect from Lynch, the movie is simple and “easy” to digest. The story goes as follows: after his father lands in the hospital, college student Jeffrey, played by Kyle MacLachlan, comes back to his hometown to help with the family business. On the way to the hospital he finds a severed ear and takes it to the town sheriff. He becomes obsessed with solving the mystery behind the ear and he finds himself in the middle of a dark and twisted plot of kidnap, rape and murder. Lynch breaks this dark and overwhelming tone of violence and fear with scenes of day to day Americana in where people speak like characters from a 1950’s sitcom, creating a frustrating juxtaposition between scenes that grab you by the throat barely letting you breathe and scenes that play as comedic. While it does sell us the main theme that things under the surface aren’t what they seem, I wish Lynch would’ve gone 100% in on the raw emotional tones Hopper and especially Rossellini were delivering.
Despite me not completely loving the 1950’s sitcom tone, I do love how he used it during the opening sequence of the movie. There are multiple beautiful shots of the traditional white picket fence, with red and yellow roses sprouting from the garden and a bright baby blue sky in the background. An old-school fire truck passes by with a fireman waving goodbye and his Dalmatian is just sitting nonchalant on the side of the truck. We cut to a man watering his plants and he is struck out of nowhere by something making him peel over in pain. The hose is still on and the water continues to shoot water to the sky and his dog comes over and starts drinking from it despite his master being in pain. The camera then pans to the grass and goes deep in to the soil showing darkness and emptiness. All of this set to a soothing and nostalgic music of the 50’s. Lynch right-off the bat, lulls into a sense of security and wholeness only to immediately rip-it out from under us and letting us know this isn’t going to be a pretty movie.
Another scene I want to highlight before I move to the performances is the introduction of Frank, played by Dennis Hopper, and Dorothy, played by Isabella Rossellini. Jeffrey breaks into the house of Dorothy because he learns that she is connected to the severed ear he found. After Dorothy confronts him, she instructs him to hide in the closet because “he” is coming. The following scene is one of the hardest scenes I have ever had to watch. It’s not only due to the sexual depravity and violence depicted, it’s because of the raw emotions displayed by Hopper and Rossellini. We see Frank treat Dorothy as his personal sex slave, slapping her around every time she looks at him because he can’t be seen for what he is, a sexual monster. We learn that he kidnapped her husband and child and if she doesn’t do everything he desires they will die. Rossellini tip toes the line of pure fear and pleasure because through this traumatic experience, she learns that she has sexual pleasure via BDSM type of encounters. The screams, the things said and the action depicted are so uncomfortable yet they draw you in and make you watch it in awe at how daring Rossellini is for portraying this character. The scene is also shot through the voyeur eyes of Jeffrey hiding in the closet, adding to the creepiness as you are in his shoes hopelessly watching this go down without having any power to stop it.
This movie is carried by Isabella Rossellini’s performance. She is asked to do so much in this movie and almost all of it is demeaning and borderline torture, both for her and the audience. Her character feels real and (sorry to keep using this word) raw, nothing filtered, nothing premeditated; it all feels like a natural reaction to the situation and the actions thrown at her. Along with her subtle yet powerful performance we have Dennis Hopper playing this over the top, perverted psychopath, obsessed with the word fuck and blue velvet, on a war path to destroy anything wholesome in his way. I have it seared in my brain the way he screamed “MOMMY” before having “sex” with Rossellini. Also, one of my favorite moments of the movie is when he asks Jeffrey his beer of choice and when Jefferey says Heineken he shouts “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon! That's what you'll drink tonight!” I laughed way too much at that scene thanks to his delivery. As for the rest of the cast, they are good. Laura Dern plays the 50’s girlfriend and Kyle MacLachlan the naïve college student, but the shadow cast by Hopper and Rossellini is far and wide.
While it’s the most straightforward project from Lynch, I still see why it has divided many audiences thanks to the themes explored within the runtime. The violence, depravity and raw emotions displayed at times feel like black holes sucking you into a void you didn’t expect to see coming, but sadly Lynch yanks you out of it to make fun of the Americana town this void is set in. I don’t know if the message is this is a dark comedy or that isn’t it funny that his situation is happening in what looks like the happiest safest place in the world, but either way I wasn’t laughing. I was just a bit confused as to what he wanted from me. Rossellini and Hopper delivered incredible performances, it just a bit sad that Lynch wanted the audience to laugh after seeing them go through a traumatic experience. But, their performances alone make this movie worth a watch. Isabella Rossellini is why I love movies
Blue Velvet is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Not for everyone.
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