By John H. Foote
(****) Criterion Blu Ray Release
“…in dreams, I walk with you…” – Roy Orbison, “In Dreams”
The first time I saw David Lynch’s darkly hypnotic, nightmarish Blue Velvet it felt like I was in someone else’s dream. This haunting, surreal nightmare of a film cannot merely be watched. Like all great works of art, it must be experienced with every sense of your being. Lynch peels back the psyche of America and exposes the horrors and rot, the intense corruption that exists beneath the advertised beauty.
Like Martin Scorsese’s astonishing Raging Bull (1980), the director telegraphs in the first frames of the film the major theme of the picture. Ranking among the most controversial, dark films of the 80s, Blue Velvet is the masterpiece of director David Lynch. Having directed the cult classic Eraserhead (1977), Lynch was handpicked by Mel Brooks to helm The Elephant Man (1980) for the comedian’s production company. Lynch delivered a brilliant film that earned eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Now a success, the studios came calling, seducing the filmmaker to direct the big budget science fiction epic Dune (1984). The experience was living hell for Lynch, and the film failed miserably, sending Lynch back into independent cinema where he had always been most comfortable. Reeling after Dune, he settled on making Blue Velvet, creating a seismic shift to American cinema and his career.
In the opening scene, the sky is impossibly blue with a few fluffy clouds, the white picket fences immaculately painted, the lawns green and trimmed. Water drips from a hose being used by a man tending to his flowers. Suddenly he grabs his arm in pain, and drops to the ground, victim of a heart attack or stroke. The hose continues to spray, a dog playfully snaps at the jetting water, the camera closes in, and we are plunged into the world underneath ours, teeming with insects preying on one another. This Norman Rockwell scene of small town USA will be peeled back to explore the corruption existing just below the surface.
Young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) will never be the same. Home from college to be with his mother while his father recovers, he finds a human ear in a field covered with hungry bugs. He dutifully takes it to the police, where he meets a local detective who takes a shine to the young man. Soon, Jeffrey is spending time with the detective’s willowy daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), and they discover they have much in common: they both fancy themselves as amateur detectives.
Jeffrey’s snooping lands him in danger when he stumbles into a strange kidnapping scene: Dorothy’s (Isabella Rossellini) husband and child are being held hostage by the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank takes drugs liberally, drinks alcohol constantly and on his hip carries a can of nitrous oxide, from which he inhales deeply, taking him to new heights of manic ecstasy.
After breaking into Dorothy’s apartment (looking for evidence of the ear’s origin), he is discovered by Dorothy. When Frank arrives, high on his narcotics cocktail, to find them together and intimate, he rapes her, ferociously like a rabid animal. In another scene Frank watches Dorothy sing in a nightclub and weeps at the beauty of her, unable to contain his emotions. But when Frank catches them together, Jeffrey knows he is now in grave danger and given what he has witnessed, he realizes he has also further endangered Dorothy’s life.
They go on a joyride to a bizarre den of overweight hookers kept by the effeminate, “suave” Ben (Dean Stockwell). In one of the most electrifying and forever haunting scenes I have experienced, Ben pops a pill into Frank’s mouth, grabs a workman’s light and begins to lip synch Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, gently swaying to the music as the drugs work their way through Frank. This sequence is harrowing in its dreamy quality. Back in the car, Jeffrey assaults Frank, causing the madman to pull over. His henchman grabs Jeffrey and holds him as a tape is inserted into the car’s cassette player. An overweight woman climbs on top of the car and begins a languid strange dance to In Dreams. Frank begins kissing Jeffrey, his lips painted bright with lipstick. He shows Jeffrey his muscles, and suddenly begins beating him to a bloody pulp, as the music continues, and the strange dance continues on the roof of the car. Only in dreams…
The plot becomes stranger with disguises, police involvement in the kidnapping, and Dorothy badly beaten, stumbling naked down the street to Jeffrey, making clear to virtuous Sandy, the two have been intimate.
When all is settled, when the plot has been resolved, the camera closes in on Jeffrey’s ear, gently pulling back to suggest the events have taken place in his mind. Was it all a dream? If so, clearly it is a nightmare from the darkest recesses of the brain.
The great strength of David Lynch as a filmmaker has always been his patience and his unbridled fearlessness. He is unhurried in his narrative, allowing the story to unfold almost leisurely, with sudden jolts to shock the audience. His characters, or rather the characters that populate the Lynch universe, are bizarre, the strangest gallery of people you will encounter in a film.
Though very much a film noir, Blue Velvet is equally a horror film, with Booth the most terrifying of monsters because of course men like him do exist. They walk the streets, psychopaths, sociopaths, purely evil men who take what they want from anyone who gets in their way. Lynch cast Hopper, fresh from rehab, after the actor boldly told the director, “I am Frank.” He was indeed.
Hopper delivers one of, if not the, greatest portrayals of evil ever put on the screen. When film historians write about the great villains in cinema, Frank Booth will top the list. Seething with rage that he does not likely understand himself, rage that is dangerously explosive, and uninhibited in every way. Other people exist for his pleasure, his needs and to him are likely not even real. His rape of Dorothy is horrifying, truly, but then we watch him weep with tenderness as she sings. How can he harm one who brings him such deep joy?
And yes, he is violent, beating Jeffrey senseless, slicing an ear off Dorothy’s husband as warning, murdering a corrupt cop when he is found out and he is on the path to killing Jeffrey too. It is his unpredictability that is terrifying, the never knowing what is coming next. And when he turns on the small tank of gas strapped to his hip, mayhem is coming. How the Academy did not nominate him for what was easily the year’s finest supporting performance, I will never understand. Shame on them.
As the curious and dangerous Ben, former child actor Dean Stockwell, like Hopper, is a revelation. Watch his facial expressions, the way he purses his lips, uses his eyes, almost flirtatious yet make no mistake, he is as vile and violent as Frank. His lip sync performance will haunt you long after you have seen it, an astonishing scene, beautifully portrayed by Stockwell. He too might have been nominated for his short, electrifying scene. Try as you might, you cannot take your eyes off the character.
Both Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini are superb as two very different women who enter Jeffrey’s life, one representing wholesome goodness, the other representing darkness, mystery and sexual delights. Jeffrey is surprised and horrified to discover Dorothy taps into his unknown love for rough sex. Kyle MacLachlan is very good as Jeffrey, very much the Lynchian character within the film. The last thing he expects is to be drawn into a terrible, dangerous world such as this. It is through Jeffrey’s eyes we experience the story, and the actor is outstanding in the film.
However, the fury, the seething hatred for humanity that Hopper brings to Frank dominates the film, overwhelming the other actors. As good as they are, Hopper blows them off the screen. Rarely has a supporting performance so completely dominated a film with the sheer force of performance. Nothing is overdone or overplayed; every aspect serves the unique vision of David Lynch.
Critics were split down the middle on Blue Velvet. Like me, some hailed it as a work of art. Roger Elbert hated it, attacking Lynch for exploiting his actresses. Blue Velvet won the awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for a single Oscar, Best Director.
This new Criterion release delivers a crisp, stunning print of the film, remastered, supervised by Lynch. The disappointment comes in the so-called found footage, which I had hoped would contain more Hopper (instead, we get only two additional minutes of him). But that is the only disappointment in this superb release of this stunning film.
In the years since the original release of the film, I think I have seen it 15 times, perhaps more. Though I think I know what it is about, and have done my best to explain here, there are absolutely aspects I will have missed. However, that is the true beauty of Blue Velvet: there is something fresh and new each time you screen it.
It remains extraordinary.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.