Director David Lynch's eery tale combines gothic Middle America with a coming-of-age story.
The film begins with too-wholesome-to-be-true Americana imagery; sunny tree-lined streets with picket fences, a car in every driveway, a man watering his lawn in shorts and dress socks. A glossy, candy-apple red fire truck glides past, complete with a dalmation, and a waving, cheerful fireman. (Of course, if you've ever watched a David Lynch film you know he's just setting you up for a fall.)
Within moments, the man watering his lawn falters, clutching his heart. The water hose drops to the lawn, kinked, as the man writhes on the ground, one of his own arteries similarly kinked. The shot continues to shift downwards and the hokey American music fades to the chittering, evil buzz of insects under the lawn, and we see them squirming over and under each other, a black sea of evil upon which the sunlit world floats.
From there, Lynch introduces us to the protagonist, Jeffrey, played by actor Kyle MacLachlan, whose father suffered the heart attack. His father survives, but it falls to Jeffrey to step up for his family. While walking through a backlot as a shortcut to the hospital where his father is being treated, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in the grass. He dutifully brings the ear to the police, who begin an investigation.
Jeffrey's starts his own investigation into the severed ear, which leads him into a depraved underworld which alternately attracts and horrifies him, while also teaching Jeffrey of the true nature of reality -- that, as shown, there is a hidden world behind (or under) the sun-dappled world which most people inhabit; that evil has an allure, and that it leaves a mark on everyone it touches.
His investigations take him to the police chief's home, where he meets Sandy, the police chief's daughter. Played by the radiant Laura Dern, Sandy is the picture of Middle America wholesomeness. She can't help but be attracted to Jeffrey because he's so much more adventurous, so much more adult, than her current boyfriend. It doesn't hurt that Jeffrey needs her help, either.
Prodded now as much by his interest in Dorothy as his curiosity, Jeffrey continues his investigation, which takes some terrifying turns, including his introduction to the demonic Frank (Dennis Hopper) a psychopath who uses a medical mask to inhale nitrous oxide and has a mysterious hold on Dorothy. As is typical in David Lynch films, the denizens of his underworld are visually unsettling. I'm not sure how he does it, but when Lynch's criminal underworld characters are always very disturbing. If they mean you harm, they're not going to just do the deed, they're going to luxuriate in the act. In Lynch's narrative universe, evil characters are warped. They look strange, they act strangely, and that ties into the theme that we are attracted to evil in some way -- perhaps in the same way we are attracted to the strange and unusual. Like a twisted fairytale, Lynch's evil-doers are trolls, their outward form matching their foul insides. They're not furtive and secretive all the time, sometime they prance and caper about -- and like good people, they are intensely interested in their moral opposite.
By the film's end Jeffrey not only is acquainted with evil, he comes to the horrifying knowledge that there is a part of himself that is evil, that was evil, even before he began his tour of the underworld. MacLachlan's acting skills are top notch; the realization of this terrible truth playing out on his face in a bedroom scene. It slowly dawns on him that maybe he's not so different from Frank; Frank is just further along.
I would highly recommend 'Blue Velvet' to anyone who wants to push their limits in terms of film. It is certainly not for everyone (there's nudity, drug use, sexual content, violence, sexual violence and some incredibly foul language), but it's a great introduction to Lynch's work as it is among the most conventionally 'narrative' of his films - plot point leads to the next plot point, and so on. Cinematically, Lynch's work is rich with texture and symbolism, like a multi-layered dessert. If you're a cinematic gourmand looking for something new to try, 'Blue Velvet' is an excellent starting point.