A David Lynch film is not so much a movie as an event to experience. He shapes dark and macabre worlds populated by the eccentric and sometimes the downright terrifying. However this isn’t a world a million miles away from ours in fact its lurking just beneath the surface.
And that’s where his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet begins. After establishing shots of picture perfect America, a fireman waving from his truck and the whitest picket fence you will ever see we are confronted by the ordinary sight of a man watering his garden on a summers day.
As the man tugs at a stuck garden hose we follow his collapse to the floor (as he suffers a stroke) but the camera doesn’t stop there as it plunges into the grass searching out what is beneath and then we see it, insects crawling all over each other. We recoil at this disgusting sight but we are going to witness much more to haunt us from the human protagonists.
Blue Velvet centres around four main characters, fresh faced young man Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan), college senior Sandy Williams (played by Laura Dern), psychotic gangster Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper) and sultry night club singer Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossalini). Each of them representing various stages of innocence and corruption. Yet it the most innocent of them that sets events in motion.
When Jeffrey finds a human ear in a field he takes it to a police detective. Before he takes it to the police the camera zooms in to the blackness inside. This can be seen as representing the start of Jeffreys journey into darkness. Or his fall into it if you will.
The police detective just happens to live near Jeffrey and while visiting the officers home he encounters his daughter Sandy. The epitome of pure innocence she becomes the facilitator of Jeffreys corruption by giving out information she has overheard from her fathers office. This exacerbates the curiosity Jeffrey already has in his heart and provides the opportunity to solve a mystery.
At this point the audience could be lulled into thinking that this would be a straight up story of a young man solving a case the police can’t. Back in 1986 seeing a Lynch movie was not the guarantee of unexpected happenings that it is now. His directing career up to this point had been very varied from low budget Eraserhead to historical drama The Elephant Man and then the big budget disappointment of Dune. Lynch however giddily defies any expectation with this film (and continues to do so to this day).
Jeffrey manages to sneak into the apartment of night club singer Dorothy who is somehow involved. His plan backfires when she discovers him hiding in the closet. It is at this point he goes from being voyeur to active participant in events. Initially the scene is a mixture of threat and sexual tension with knife wielding Dorothy seemingly in complete control as she begins to seduce the helpless Jeffrey while holding her weapon.
Her power doesn’t last long though a banging at the door signals the arrival of a person who is less a man and more of a monster. Frank is psychotic, he subjects Dorothy to a ceremonial rape of extreme brutality. It becomes apparent that Dorothy has had to deal with this more than once and has seemingly accepted the broken spirit she now has. This leads to her screaming at Jeffrey to hit her.
Jeffrey is a character at the tipping point, he doesn’t want to hit her he wants to help her. She represents to him a sexual thrill, a worldly wise woman who can steal his innocence in the most pleasurable way. Though he eventually caves and strikes her while they have sex. His exposure to the dark world beneath ours that is inhabited by Dorothy and Frank breaking his pure spirit. Can he truly do anything to help her or will he turn into a monster like Frank. His own inner flaws prevent him from walking away, he can not resist his inner temptations. He wants sex from her, he wants to solve the mystery and he wants to know more than is good for him.
Is Sandy blameless here? She gave Jeffrey the information which helped him gain access to Dorothy and assists his plans beyond the point of no return but she retains a real naivete not realising how bad things could possibly get. Plus she is played with such sweetness by Laura Dern that it would be a very harsh audience member to be mean to her.
Jeffrey has begun a love affair with Sandy yet he shows no remorse about what he is doing with Dorothy behind her back. Perhaps this can be seen as how the dark world he has entered has now ensnared him and he has been corrupted, no longer able to tell right from wrong or no longer caring. Yet can a person ever have their cake and eat it? In this case no as Jeffrey is discovered by Frank and subjected to psychological torture and a beating at the psychos hands. Frank remains an enigma throughout the film, we learn nothing about him and experience only the worst kind of behaviour from him. He is the representation of everything that is cruel and vicious. When it comes to audience reactions there can be nothing but hatred towards him. Many actors would have shied away from such an irredeemable part but Dennis Hopper who was not long out of rehab for drug abuse shows total commitment.
So once these people have gone to the dark side (paraphrasing not entirely intentional) is there anyway they can come back to the light? What are they clinging to? In the case of Dorothy it is that she will be reunited with her kidnapped husband and young son. When it comes to Jeffrey it seems he is unable to resist the lure of this world but Sandy wants to drag him away and to see that in their more ordinary lives things aren’t so bad. It is only Frank who has gone beyond the point of no return.
As events progress Sandy realises what this world is doing to the man she has fallen in love with. In one of the emotional scenes of the movie Sandy and Jeffrey are confronted in the street by a naked Dorothy who it seems has now been pushed totally over the edge. She is delirious and screams about how Jeffrey has put his disease in her. Perhaps the disease is one of tenderness as all she has known is brutality. Sandy is naturally horrified never in her naïve way imagining that Jeffrey would be doing anything with this woman other than solving the mystery.
The film stands out as it takes the tropes of police procedural, film noir and mystery thrillers and pushes them to extremes.
Through this bleakness and trauma that the characters are faced with the question of, is there anything left that is good? Can the world be a kind place and is there any hope left? Jeffrey sums all these feelings up when he tearfully asks Sandy “Why are there people like Frank?”
Sandy is the figure of hope and she tells the story of a dream she has where thousands of robins flying down represent love returning to the world. Towards the end of the movie the happily reunited (and seemingly now in a state of domestic bliss) Jeffrey and Sandy witness a robin through the kitchen window yet its appearance tells us two key things.
Firstly the robin looks very fake yet they are still enraptured by it. They see its beauty but are unable (or unwilling) to see how fake it is and what is really in front of them. Just like the world they live in.
Secondly the robin is eating an insect. Insects open the movie in the shot of them crawling beneath the surface and they are a recurring motif throughout. Lets not forget that Jeffrey first gains access to Dorothy’s apartment when he pretends to be a pest control man. It is like he feels he can exterminate her problems and has no idea how misguided he really is.
Just before the robin appears we witness a shot coming out of an ear, the reverse of the beginning and though we may think Jeffrey and Sandy have escaped the trauma of their experiences the fake robin reminds us that the façade remains and beneath it the darkness hasn’t gone away.
The film may be nearly thirty years old but it has lost none of its power to shock and serves as a timely reminder that we should always look beyond surface appearances though we may not like what we find lurking beneath.
Blue Velvet is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD