Joltingly original, lurid, and fascinating, David Lynch's Blue Velvet is probably the strangest coming-of-age tale in American cinema. Kyle MacLachlan is Jeffrey Beaumont, a college student who returns to his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina, after his father suffers a stroke. When he finds a severed ear in a field, he begins investigating how and why it got there, with the help of fellow naif Sandy (Laura Dern). They stumble into the world of nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who is being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by Frank Booth (played to psychotic perfection by Dennis Hopper). Lynch, who also carefully crafted the script, plunges Jeffrey into the dark, surreal depths beneath this stereotypically innocent small town, forcing him to encounter a shockingly perverse side of his own personality. The jarring juxtaposition of blandly charming Americana and jaw-dropping depravity leaves first-time viewers spellbound and made the film an instant cult classic. You'll never listen to Bobby Vinton's title song, "Blue Velvet," or see an oxygen mask, the same way again.
David Lynch's map of the terrain between wet dream and nightmare, Blue Velvet reaffirmed the director's status as one of the most vital talents in American filmmaking, and achieved a mood and tone which would indelibly influence popular culture for the remainder of the 20th century. Though much of the film revolves around a compelling, lurid mystery -- executed in a tense, economical manner that might have made Alfred Hitchcock proud -- Blue Velvet is more interested in the mysteries of desire and the horrors of unchecked deviance. Lynch uses the form, style, and mood of a film noir to challenge and ultimately subvert notions of innocence, sexuality, and love. Even the casting reflects the director's agenda: Lynch's fresh young heroes, as played by Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, are like leads in a 1950s hygiene film; he pits them against two icons of a lost Hollywood, Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper, the latter turning in a jolting, career-resuscitating performance. Though it specifies no particular time, Blue Velvet's "golly gee" milieu of Lumberton, replete with soda fountains, convertibles, and hardware stores, is a Reagan-era idyll, an exaggeration of the 1980s concept of the American Dream. But from the moment Lynch's camera delves underground (in a surreal, Buñuel-like moment) to take in a thriving community of ants, it's clear that the director is more interested in the Reagan of Kings Row (1941), and in the grotesque despair that lurks beneath the surface of placid middle-American life. The film was a breakthrough for Lynch in the way it melded the dream worlds of Eraserhead (1977) and Dune (1984) with the more literal, narrative approach of The Elephant Man (1980): its densely saturated, red-white-and-blue color scheme was stunningly photographed by Fredrick Elmes; the haunting, expressionistic soundscape was designed by frequent Lynch collaborator Alan Splet.
A neo-noir nightmare about a cheery town's "strange world," Blue Velvet (1986) is the quintessential David Lynch film. Delving into the sordid underside of heartland America, Lynch's tale of murder, greed, sexual deviance, and sado-masochism unequivocally revealed his cinematic gift for merging deadpan humor, aching sincerity, and unspeakable brutality. The indelible images of too-crisp suburban picket fences and flower beds and the insect-infested ground beneath are deeply unsettling long before nice boy Jeffrey Beaumont's discovery of a severed ear leads to the Lumberton netherworld inhabited by victimized torch singer Dorothy Vallens and fabric-obsessed, gas-inhaling über-psycho Frank Booth. Beaumont's struggle between the dark temptations of Booth's world and the luminous normality of his blonde girlfriend Sandy sharply divided critics over whether Blue Velvet was perverse filth, or a disturbing mélange of surrealism, noir, and 1950s kitsch that brilliantly punctured the smooth surface of traditional Americana. Still, Lynch's singular vision earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director and a devoted cult following for the box office flop; the National Society of Film Critics gave Blue Velvet several prizes including Best Film and Best Supporting Actor for Dennis Hopper's unnerving, career-resurrecting performance as Booth. By 1990, as Lynch was about to bring his warped version of small town America to TV on Twin Peaks, critical consensus declared Blue Velvet one of the three greatest films of the 1980s, alongside Raging Bull (1980) and Do The Right Thing (1989); traces of its influence can be seen from Quentin Tarantino's arch sadism to Todd Solondz's suburban misanthropy.
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