September of this year will see the 25th anniversary of one of the most depraved, unnerving, grotesque, and brilliant movies in the American film canon. Even if Blue Velvet were to premier today, few would expect the shocking details that director David Lynch included in his modern noir, a creepy story about a naïve college student who discovers an organized crime syndicate while visiting his small home town.
Kyle Maclachlan plays the young student who, after finding a severed human ear, is made aware of a missing-persons case and then decides to conduct his own investigation of the crime. His efforts lead him to spying on a sultry night club singer (Isabella Rossellini), an unbalanced woman being forced to submit to degrading sexual acts by the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in a profoundly disturbing role) who is holding her son hostage. As he submerges ever deeper into the criminal underbelly of the town, including a sadomasochistic affair with the singer, the young man also pursues a wholesome relationship with the daughter of a local detective; Laura Dern, at her most endearing, plays the primary love-interest.
Describing the movie, it’s impossible to make it sound any less weird than it actually is. Truly, Blue Velvet is a diabolical bit of cinema, but it is a thoroughly engrossing one. David Lynch directs this lurid tale with sleekness and style, and with some (dare I say) tenderness, even during Hopper’s harrowing scenes. The most infamous moment in the movie, following Hopper and Rossellini’s first kinky encounter, belongs to Dean Stockwell’s “Ben”. As Stockwell performs a tender lip sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in front of a teary-eyed Hopper, Lynch touches upon a strange mixture of sensitivity and cruelty. He would continue to explore this odd dichotomy in his later films (Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Dr.) but never as compellingly as in Blue Velvet, primarily due to the inherent excitement of the noir format.
His virtuoso direction of the final confrontation in Blue Velvet hinted at his technical mastery, which he’d continue to develop. Yet, Blue Velvet remains his magnum opus, as successful as it is controversial. In their famous review of the film, Siskel and Ebert got into a heated debate about the movie’s sordidness. Ebert said he felt degraded by having to watch Isabella Rossellini put through such intense humiliation. Siskel took a more sober approach, claiming that she was an adult and knew what the role entailed.
The debate continues to rage on 25 years later. One thing, however, remains certain. Uncomfortable or not, when watching Blue Velvet it is impossible to look away.