In this deeply dark and bizarre film, Jeffrey Beaumont, played by Kyle MacLachlan, returns to his hometown after his father has a heart attack; while crossing a field he discovers a human ear and takes it to the police. He becomes dissatisfied with the way the police respond and begins investigating the matter himself. In the process, he discovers that within his quaint suburban town exists a seamy underworld of kinky sex and brutal violence.
The film operates on a number of levels, coming on as both a detective mystery and a kitchen-sink drama. The tangled relationship which transpires between Jeffrey, college-girl sweetheart Sandy Williams (played by Laura Dern), the daughter of a detective, and Isabella Rossellini's femme fatale Dorothy Vallens, is twisted into even sharp relief by Dennis Hopper's maniacal gangster who gets off playing Roy Orbison's song, "In Dreams".