I’ve been sitting on this review for a while. This film is a tough nut to crack.
Thankfully, it wasn’t as scary as I expected: rather, surreal and, for lack of a better word, freaky. Home from college because his father has suffered a recent stroke, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a human ear in the field behind his neighborhood. His curiosity is piqued, and with the help of newfound friend Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), he decides to pursue the case of his own accord. Before he knows it, Jeffrey is being sucked into the warped and frightening world of the beautiful singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and the violent, perverted sociopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
The film opens with a shot of an idyllic suburban paradise, complete with white picket fences and flowers swaying in the breeze. This paradise is shattered almost immediately when a man watering his lawn suffers a stroke and falls down unconscious. The camera then cuts to a close-up beneath the lush grass, where there is a swarming nest of disgusting insects. This opening sequence introduces a theme that is carried throughout the film – a sense of something nasty lurking behind a pleasant facade. Jeffrey’s quest is one for knowledge and illumination, and significantly, the violence he uncovers is going on right in his own perfect neighborhood (just as the nest of insects is hidden beneath the well-kept lawn). (A heavy-handed image but an effective one nevertheless.)
This is no ordinary mystery, however. As the plot unfolds and more information is revealed, we as viewers become more befuddled rather than enlightened. The story is more dreamlike than anything else. Sandy, materializing uncannily out of the darkness (“Are you the one that found the ear?”) with all the information Jeffrey needs, seems almost to be a vision or hallucination. Jeffrey’s interactions with Dorothy are like sexual fantasies come to life, her character existing almost exclusively as a sexual being. And Frank is made of the stuff of nightmares; twisted, violent, his behavior involving a combination of sexual perversions, old 50’s hits, drug use, and physical and verbal abuse. Lynch’s camerawork and editing only enhance this dreamlike tone, engaging everything from slow zooms in and out of various ears, to brief, random shots of staircases or flickering candles mid-scene. By the end of the film, it is difficult to decipher whether the events of the plot have even occurred at all, or whether everything has existed only in the confines of Jeffrey’s own mind.
As disorienting as it is, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s surreal quality. What is set up as a standard neo-noir mystery immediately takes a turn for the nightmarish, and in this way, the events that take place are that much more terrifying. We catch only glimpses of Frank’s fixations, fetishes, and violence, never getting the full story, and thus he is dehumanized, turned into something powerful and cruel. His behavior is never explained or resolved – merely cut short by his death. The film is unapologetic as it takes us down the rabbit hole into Dorothy’s world, and what we experience there lingers with us like the remnants of a vivid bad dream.
Where Lynch loses me a little is in the scenes with Sandy that take place outside of the dreamscape. Jeffrey and Sandy’s relationship is the most formulaic part of the film; it is immediately obvious that they will end up together, and their relationship follows the predictable flirtation-romance-conflict-forgiveness-happilyeverafter template. Their interactions seem stale and insincere throughout the film, however, almost as if they are meant as a mockery of traditional filmic romances.
For instance, after first witnessing Frank’s abuse of Dorothy, Jeffrey says to Sandy with a sincerity that is almost laughable, “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Sandy responds with a description of a dream she had the night she met Jeffrey, in which robins, representing love, brought light to a previously dark world. “So I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come,” she says. This conversation is so saccharine and cliché, especially in the midst of the fresh, original, and disturbing execution of Dorothy and Frank’s story, that it is hard to be sure whether we are really meant to take it seriously.
If the relationship is meant to be a caricature, I think it makes a pretty interesting comment about the theme of normalcy that Lynch establishes at the beginning of the film. At the end, we return to this idyllic suburban lifestyle, with all the loose ends of the plot tied up. Jeffrey’s father miraculously experiences a full recovery off camera, all of Dorothy’s trauma seems to be erased, and Jeffrey and Sandy are happily in love. Smiling, Sandy points out a robin holding an insect in its beak. (Think back to the nest of insects under the grass.) Love has conquered evil!
Of course, Frank was not the only source of evil in the world – and yet, now that he has been killed, Jeffrey and Sandy seem to believe that all is well, returning to the bubble-like world from which they came. What unsettles me is my uncertainty about whether this ending is meant to be dissatisfying, or whether it is a result of poor writing.
I did enjoy this film, though, and was certainly engaged by it. If Lynch’s goal is to leave you deeply unsettled (and I’m sure that is his goal), he does a pretty phenomenal job.