Blow Out (1981)


Brian De Palma’s masterpiece of homage, Blow Out, is a stylish and intelligent thrill ride that sets itself apart from other thrillers both classic and contemporary by populating its story with plausible three-dimensional characters. Characters are given realistic flaws, interests, and backstories that allow the audience deeper insight into these people’s personalities and motivations. It also helps that De Palma’s direction is fantastically slick. Because the characters are so believable he can present wordless scenes of stylistic direction that hypnotizes the audience because we are as devoted to the character’s mission as the character himself.

Put simply, Blow Out concerns a sound man, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who does the sound effects for low rent horror flicks. When out late in a park recording ambient noises, he happens to record a car flying off the bridge below him and plunging into a pond. Initially it seems like a simple accident, but as Travolta listens back to his recording he becomes convinced that this was no mere mishap.

In the hands of an inferior director or screen writer this type of set up could have gone the easy route of a simple conspiracy and uncovering that we’ve seen so much of. However, this film takes its time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to grow attached. Sally (Nancy Allen), the working girl Terry pulls from the car, is show to have a good eye for make-up and one day aspires to be a make-up artist, claiming she could do it better than they do in the movies. Terry is also given an interesting backstory. He once worked with the Philadelphia police department, rigging undercover officers with wires so as to catch criminals on tape. One of his operations goes wrong and he blames himself for it. Out of this comes a blustering paranoia about his current situation, which gives his character a much appreciated depth.

And as mentioned above, the depth that these characters are given does wonders for De Palma’s direction style. Because we are so in tune with Terry’s psyche and mindset, we are on the edge of our seats when De Palma spends five minutes showing him cutting together a series of photographs into a makeshift movie and setting it to the sound he recorded. We as the audience are just as interested to see the completed project as Terry himself is, and this allows De Palma to draw out the excitement while treating us to shots of Terry working with a variety of, now vintage, sound and movie equipment. This sequence may have been interesting to me just to see this equipment in use, but its made so much more interesting by its antecedents.

John Lithgow is also phenomenal as the cold, psychotic Mr. Burke, who cynically murders a series of women in order to disguise his eventual murder of Sally as a simple serial killing case. This kind of intelligence of crime is rarely seen in thrillers and makes the film utterly refreshing . The nihilistic twist ending is also fantastic and brings the story full circle in a satisfying style. I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in crime or thriller films.


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