It may seem odd—downright puzzling, even—to decide on Blue Velvet being my formal introduction to the infamously bizarre David Lynch, given its reputation for being among his sickest, ugliest cinematic nightmares. Not that its controversial nastiness necessarily repelled me from ever seeing it, but for a while, I found myself more naturally gravitating towards 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a more widely-acclaimed Hollywood noir starring Naomi Watts.
Although likely quite twisted in its own right, Mulholland still seemed like a safer bet for easing myself into Lynch’s stylistic strangeness, even with 1977’s Eraserhead being another possible point of entry. As time went by, however, Blue Velvet ultimately became a much stronger draw for me, despite (or, perhaps, in part because of) all the infamy surrounding it.
After finally deciding to save Mulholland for another day, I can confidently tell you that Blue Velvet was, in fact, perhaps a perfect start to Lynch after all. I’d hesitate to describe it as “accessible”, mainly because viewers’ feelings on its more disturbing elements may vary, but this is where the man’s rich storytelling capabilities were really proven to me.
All the unhinged, unnervingly dream-like weirdness you’d expect from Lynch is still here, but in addition to feeling more (relatively) restrained than you might expect, it’s anchored in a story that’s incredibly straightforward and easy-to-follow, yet thoughtfully complex without feeling pretentious. Impressively for Lynch’s first real swing at fitting this weirdness into a more traditional narrative (not counting The Elephant Man or his 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which likely feature very little weirdness at all), the scarily unpredictable bursts of surrealism never over-complicate or distract from this story, but vividly enrich it.
Surprisingly for a Lynch film, the overall sequence of events is actually pretty easy to summarize in a paragraph or two, but it’s still best to remain fairly vague. Besides the jarring prologue (hint: the scene where we first hear the Bobby Vinton song lending itself to the film’s title), Blue Velvet begins as a generally innocent coming-of-age mystery, as introverted college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, whose powerfully quiet performance is too often ignored) is brought back to his small hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina by his father’s near-fatal stroke.
Despite the warm smiles and cozy shops populating this town, a grisly discovery convinces Jeffrey there must be something sinister lurking just out of sight. Before long, these suspicions propel him into the life of reclusive nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose apartment he weasels into disguised as a bug exterminator. From there, he only ventures deeper and deeper into Lumberton’s sleazy underbelly, which, as sharply reflected in Frederick Elmes’s eerie cinematography, strips away even the slightest sense of innocence from this town—and Jeffrey himself.
In essence, Blue Velvet is the darkest, haziest, most graphically perverse spin on an old-timey Alfred Hitchcock thriller like Rear Window, where a sympathetic character’s voyeurism into a world entirely apart from theirs casts them within dangerous territory, leaving them to desperately fend for themselves against the most frightening of human psychopaths. Angelo Badalamenti’s beautifully haunting score, which is uncannily Hitchcockian on its own, is just sinister enough to make that work, but what really sells it is the psychopath himself.
That psychopath would be Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a gas-huffing, viciously short-tempered drug dealer Jeffrey does his best to hide from. How he involved with the story should not—and, at the risk of raising too many eyebrows, cannot—be spoiled before seeing the movie yourself, but that’s not even necessary in the first place to understand how menacing he is.
With a piercingly angry voice, terrifyingly casual attitude towards inflicting extreme pain and terror on others, and relentless determination to snuff out anything standing in his way, Frank might be one of the most intimidating villains I’ve seen in any movie. Showing a courageous intensity some actors might balk at in bringing this character to life, Hopper’s fierce performance is guaranteed to get some kind of physical reaction from you, whether or not you’d like it to.
Most critics did, but as many of you might already know, Roger Ebert did not. Awarding the film 1 out of a possible 4 stars, he wrote “…[D]irector David Lynch chose to interrupt the almost hypnotic pull of that relationship [between Jeffrey and Dorothy] in order to pull back to his jokey, small-town satire… After five or 10 minutes in which the screen reality was overwhelming, I didn’t need the director prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun.”
To be clear, it’s completely understandable for someone to walk away from Blue Velvet just feeling cold or disgusted, but surprisingly for an otherwise fair and measured writer like Ebert, this is a shockingly misguided interpretation of the film’s goals. Once Lumberton’s darkest secrets, including the true nature of Jeffrey and Dorothy’s developing relationship, really come into focus, all that “jokey, small-town satire” immediately vanishes, making it clear that Lynch is not “whistling that it was all in fun.”
By that point, even the slightest glimmer of something akin to comic relief, like when one of Frank’s friends (portrayed by Dean Stockwell) lip-syncs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, is far more discomforting than funny, and that’s exactly the point. No matter how often the “small-town satire” is present in Blue Velvet (and trust me, it’s really not present all that often), the film’s most vile scenes are never played off as some elaborate farce, although Ebert insisted otherwise: “What’s worse? Slapping somebody around, or standing back and finding the whole thing funny?”
By saying that, it’s undeniable that Ebert dramatically misunderstood Lynch’s intentions in crafting this story, but even a harsh critic like him was clearly affected by it: “’Blue Velvet’ contains scenes of such raw emotional energy that it’s easy to understand why some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece… These sequences have great power. They make ‘9 ½ Weeks’ look rather timid by comparison, because they do seem genuinely born from the darkest and most despairing side of human nature.”
Without even realizing it, Ebert precisely hits the nail on the head as to what makes Blue Velvet so brilliant. Above all else, Lynch is deeply studying the parts of the human psyche we’d most like to ignore, no matter who they might surface in. What you take away from that is for you to decide.