Now It’s Dark: David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986)


David Lynch’s Blue Velvet isn’t your average mystery story. In fact, the biggest mystery involves the depravity of certain human beings. What makes people become evil?

When Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), Blue Velvet‘s chief protagonist, rolls into town, it isn’t under very mysterious circumstances. Jeffrey’s father (Jack Harvey) had suffered a near-fatal stroke, so Jeff returned home to be supportive.

In typical Lynchian fashion, however, the stroke isn’t just a stroke. It is a rather important symbol of life’s hidden, creeping and sometimes hideous design.

Moments before the stroke, the town of Lumberton seemed almost too perfect. We were shown a cute “Welcome To Lumberton” sign, a white picket fence with red roses, and a fireman standing on a slowly moving firetruck, smiling and waving to the neighborhood (and to the viewer), as if in a parade. But there is no parade, is there? Just what is going on here? This bit of surrealism suggests that, if you peek beneath the pleasant side of life, the whole thing can start looking like a charade.

Credit: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Happiness itself seems surreal. Indeed, while Jeffrey’s father lies painfully on the grass, the garden hose he was holding is now being played with and drunk from by a dog. Next, the camera pans to the grass itself, where we see bugs inhabiting their own little, disgusting world that ordinary minds seldom think about.

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This is exactly what makes Blue Velvet a great movie. Even in this little opening scene, volumes of information and thought fodder are given. It is also already like a horror movie, and there hasn’t been an actual villain (or particular conflict) yet. Life is the villain and the conflict.

Still, there is a story beyond the opening scene. After visiting his dad in the hospital, Jeffrey walks casually through a field, where he randomly discovers a human ear in the grass. After bringing the ear to detective John Williams (George Dickerson), Jeffrey gets drawn into a relationship with Mr. William’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). Partly due to her interest, Jeffrey gets  deeper and deeper into the case. Before long, he crosses the line between mere interest and actual participation in solving it.

After Sandy mentions the name Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) as part of the investigation, Jeffrey actually cons his way into Dorothy’s apartment (by pretending to be an exterminator), and steals a spare pair of keys. An interesting, basic question emerges: When is it okay to snoop? In Jeff’s case, it rather quickly leads to trouble.

As it turns out, Dorothy Vallens is not just an average nightclub singer. Her life has been severely disturbed by a rough customer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) — one of the most memorable villains in film history. Booth is a gangster, drug dealer and sadistic, torturous pimp with a fetish for blue velvet (the material and the song).

The movie is called “Blue Velvet” for a reason. (Photo: De Laurentiis)

This is where the nightmare ball really starts rolling, as he witnesses the criminal world and the deranged mind of Mr. Booth. It’s a relatable story point, as just about every city (and even many towns) have what is called “The wrong side of the tracks.” In the process of exploring this phenomenon, David Lynch (through his character Jeffrey) has us asking further questions, such as “Why are there people like Frank?” “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Lumberton could seem like a perfect, ordinary little town, yet it’s not.  No town is all that ordinary, and everywhere has some underlying evil.

Part of what makes Blue Velvet interesting is Jeffrey’s own transformation. When the movie began, he was nothing but an ordinary, mild-mannered, somewhat dorky guy. As the story progresses, however, his interest in solving a mystery leads to darkness.

As he sees Frank bend the world to his particular (and peculiar) mania, it seems there’s a part of Jeffrey that envies him. It’s somewhat subtle, but it’s hinted at numerous times. Darkness is contagious and never too far away. Why wouldn’t it be?  At various points in the movie, Jeffrey most certainly crosses a line, even if he never intended to.  Who’s to say Frank didn’t go through a similar process?

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In the darkest parts of one’s mind, one may envy the level of freedom and invincibility felt by Frank.  His criminal gang seems to be enthralled by him as well, and not just because he’s a “tough.”  There is a unique and unnecessarily twisted nature to Frank’s shenanigans.  He is certainly sadistic, but he represents a certain wild, untamed freedom.

In a memorable scene, one of Frank’s associates, Ben (Dean Stockwell), does an incredible mime performance  of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams.  This seems to be both a tribute and a provocation for Frank, as the song seems to have a profound emotional impact on him.  Could this imply that evil has chaotic, irrational and emotional influences beyond predictability?  Perhaps anything can trigger us into chaos and violence.

Here’s to Ben.

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As a result, one wonders if Jeffrey should have left the mystery unexplored.  Perhaps some stones should remain unturned.  That being said, you should look under the stone of Blue Velvet.