The past few weeks have seen a spate of spiritually focused films. From I Can Only Imagine (about a Christian music group) to God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (about a church struggling to rebuild after a fire) to Paul: the Apostle (about, well, Paul the apostle), this spring has seen a wealth of Christian movies that center on questions of faith and doubt. But the problem, as Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson has already pointed out, is that many of them aren’t very good.
All too often, Wilkinson writes, contemporary faith-based films don’t deal meaningfully with the challenges of faith. Instead, they function as feel-good material, reinforcing white evangelical Christians’ narrative that they’re the most persecuted group in America. “These movies are successful,” she writes, “largely because they know their base. That base is large, and it pays to support movies that make it feel represented. Vitally, that base also believes it’s being persecuted. “
All too often, films purporting to be “Christian” in nature are saccharine and unchallenging — easy tales of good versus evil in which faith is rewarded with an untroubled, happy ending. Characters spout Bible verses or Hallmark platitudes. Atheists either see the error of their ways and convert or die horribly (or sometimes both). It’s the cinematic equivalent of what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
As Wilkinson writes of God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the franchise is guilty of precisely that cheapness: “The greatest offense of the God’s Not Dead series may be its failure to imagine for its audience what a truly radical belief in a living God would look like. The movies, crippled by their own narcissistic inward turn, prove their imagination is far, far too small.”
Whether or not you’re Christian, questions of faith and doubt, good and evil, are worth engaging with. And Christians deserve a good film about faith: a film that shows the triumph of good over evil without cheapening that struggle. They deserve a film whose grace is not cheap but dearly won.
I’m talking, of course, about David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Blue Velvet — a 1986 neo-noir about sexual voyeurism, sadomasochism, corruption, and rape — is hardly an obvious spiritual movie. It’s been denounced by critics as deeply misogynist and self-indulgently violent. Roger Ebert infamously gave the film just one star, criticizing its abrupt tonal shift from small-town surrealism to noir brutality — saying that Blue Velvet “pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart.”
But the way Lynch balances an unflinching look at pure evil with an authentic faith in the possibility of human salvation makes Blue Velvet as much a spiritual film as it is a disturbing one. (And some Christians agree: The progressive, mainline Protestant magazine the Christian Century named it its 1986 movie of the year.)
It would be foolish to argue that Blue Velvet is a specifically, intentionally Christian movie. (Lynch was raised Presbyterian but now identifies as spiritual, without a specific religious affiliation.) But Lynch’s treatment of redemption and unearned forgiveness in the face of horrific evil bears a strong resemblance to the idea of grace in the Christian tradition: as something that is not “earned,” but rather offered freely; something that does not negate the difficulties of the world but rather offers hope beyond it.
Lynch uses the noir genre to set up, and subvert, our expectations
Blue Velvet’s plot is simple. Jeffrey, a college student (played by Kyle MacLachlan), has taken time off from school to care for his ailing father in the small town of Lumberton. One day, while walking home from the hospital, he comes across a severed ear in the woods. With the help of the sheriff’s sunny teenage daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey starts to investigate the case.
But Jeffrey’s curiosity turns to voyeuristic obsession, as he gets himself embroiled in the sordid story of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a fragile nightclub singer. Dorothy’s son and husband (whose ear Jeffrey has found) are being held hostage by a psychopathic gangster, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank uses his leverage over Dorothy to demand brutal and degrading sexual favors from her, sex that Dorothy seems to have become psychologically dependent on.
As Jeffrey gets more and more entangled in Dorothy’s story, he also becomes complicit in her tragedy. He winds up naked in her closet during an investigation gone wrong, watching Frank rape her through a peephole. Upon discovering him, Dorothy, desperate for any kind of human contact, violently demands he become her lover. Soon, Jeffrey is balancing his investigation into Dorothy’s husband and child’s whereabouts, a blossoming romance with Sandy, and his secret, increasingly sadomasochistic affair with Dorothy.
We think we know where this story is going to go. After all, Blue Velvet has all the aesthetic hallmarks of a film noir. There’s an investigation into the seedy underbelly of a small town. There’s a detective protagonist who discovers that the very people he thought he could trust — including, it turns out, the sheriff’s office — are actively complicit in unspeakable horrors. There’s a sultry femme fatale, leading our protagonist into moral dissolution.
But noirs have a very particular moral (you might even say theological) framework. The fundamental assumption of the noir, from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown, is that the world is a terrible place, devoid of any meaning, and every attempt to solve its problems results in things getting even worse. Noirs are tragedies not only on the level of the individual characters — although the protagonist and femme fatale alike usually end up worse off at the end of the story than when they started — but on the level of the whole narrative world. There is no God in noir, nor is there grace.
But Lynch subverts all that. He uses the noir tropes to set up our expected ending — Sandy finds out about Jeffrey’s betrayal, Frank kills Dorothy, Jeffrey finishes the film far more bitter and hardened than he started — only to give us something totally unexpected.
About two-thirds of the way into the movie, we get the “expected” reveal scene. Dorothy, bruised and dazed from another round of Frank’s abuse, shows up naked on Sandy’s doorstep, looking for Jeffrey. Sandy realizes that Jeffrey has been cheating on her. Her face contorts into a terrible sob — an expression so cartoonishly broad that’s since been memorialized as a meme. She shouts at him to get out of the house.
But then something unexpected happens. Sandy forgives Jeffrey. She gets medical assistance for Dorothy, tenderly comforting her as she helps her into an ambulance. She calls Jeffrey after she has calmed down, telling him that she loves him, despite what he’s done. Jeffrey, in turn, tracks down and kills Frank Booth, allowing Dorothy to be reunited with her son (Frank has already killed her husband). Jeffrey and Sandy end up together, and happy. Dorothy ends up happy too — our final image of her is her playing with her beloved son.
On one level, critiques like Ebert’s are right: Blue Velvet does indeed exhibit a major tonal shift, going from a horrific rape scene to a brightly lit, Donna Reed-style happy ending. But that shift is precisely the point. By denying the viewers our expected ending — an ending as brutal, bleak, and sexually charged as the genre demands — Lynch challenges us to envision the possibility of grace. Blue Velvet ends with a redemption that has, symbolically, been bought through the forgiveness Sandy offers, which Jeffrey does not deserve.
Throughout Blue Velvet, Lynch plays with the idea of complicity, especially as it pertains to sex and violence. Jeffrey’s narrative curiosity — what the hell is this ear doing here? — morphs into full-on sexual perversion. His desire to know what happens becomes indistinguishable from his desire to witness Dorothy undergo increasingly degrading sexual situations. He becomes, at least in part, complicit in Dorothy’s suffering.
And we, as audience members, are complicit too. Like Jeffrey, we watch Dorothy’s rape, and — implicitly — let it happen. On both a narrative and sexual level, Jeffrey (and we) expect a kind of consummation: a fulfillment of our expectations. This story of sex and death has to end with, well, death.
Lynch also uses this subversion of expectation during Blue Velvet’s sex scenes. It would be easy to argue that those scenes are de facto exploitative. But Lynch specifically shoots the rape scenes to be as bizarre and surreal as possible, designed to make the viewer uncomfortable rather than aroused. There’s little lingering over female flesh, and the off-putting strangeness of Booth’s kink — calling Dorothy “Mommy” and himself “Baby” — highlight just how repulsive what’s happening really is.
Likewise, Lynch allows Dorothy to be a complicated character, not just a victim to be gawked at voyeuristically. She sexually assaults Jeffreys in their first encounter, mirroring the rape she has just experienced. She is likewise psychologically dependent on her torture, even going so far as to ask Jeffrey to slap her during sex. But Lynch refuses to see her as either just a “victim” or a doomed, villainous femme fatale, but a difficult woman who has internalized her abuse in toxic ways.
Dorothy is both victim and perpetrator (like pretty much everyone in the movie except for Frank) — but, Lynch implies, she is still worthy of redemption. Neither her rape nor her crimes deny her a happy ending: She ends the movie not only alive and well but also reunited with her son.
The key to Blue Velvet is its ending
Refusing to grant us the ending we “want” — an ending that would make us complicit in the sex and violence and cruelty of Lumberton — Lynch very consciously, even artificially, grants us the ending we need. Human kindness and the will to forgive triumph over Frank’s aesthetic brand of “sexy evil.”
About halfway through the film, Sandy tells Jeffrey about a dream she had:
I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.
It’s an odd monologue, one that seems overly mystical in a film about the degradation of daily existence. But Sandy’s dream ultimately comes to pass. At the end of the film, a reunited Jeffrey and Sandy find a robin in their kitchen window. In its beak is a cockroach, a reference to the bugs we saw earlier swarming over the severed ear. The robin is awkwardly animatronic, artificial-looking. But that artificiality only heightens the ending’s strength.
Happiness, goodness, forgiveness — none of these are narratively exciting or “sexy.” But as Lynch has been telling us throughout the film, what is “exciting” and what is spiritually good are two different things entirely.
Unlike God’s Not Dead, Blue Velvet doesn’t pretend that God always rewards the good and punishes the wicked, or that faith is all that’s necessary to improve your life. The film takes evil seriously. But, it suggests, that’s not all there is. It offers a narratively challenging “happy ending” — a story of beauty and goodness in defiance of evil — that, for Christians, is at the heart of their faith.