Blow Out (1981)

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Movie Review
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Blow Out (1981)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Conspiracy theories are a tricky subject. People on both sides of the argument are quick to insist that their version of events must be what really happened. Anyone who says anything different must not be paying close enough attention, or is otherwise crazy. This line of thinking goes nowhere. Meanwhile, time ticks away, evidence gathers dust, and anyone who truly knows how to fit all the pieces together succumbs to illness and old age. In the case of a murder conspiracy, you also must ask yourself why the search for the truth is so important. Who will the answer benefit, besides yourself? It certainly won’t matter to the deceased. What about the friends and family they’ve left behind? Would a resolution satisfy them, or would they find it easier to deal with the pain and move on? Once again, these and other questions always seem to have different answers, depending on whom you ask.

The way that Brian De Palma begins “Blow Out,” you’ll wonder just for a moment whether you’re watching the right movie. Everything about the pre-credits sequence seems to point toward a slasher movie but, by the time the naked girl in the shower screams, you know what’s really going on. The rest of “Blow Out” shares more in common with Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (1966) than just a similar-sounding title. In both movies, the lead character witnesses a murder, or rather he believes he has, and he spends an unhealthy amount of time trying to prove it. Instead of a photographer, Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound effects technician for a film studio that makes bad horror movies. One night while recording the sounds of animals, wind and water, Jack picks up the sound of a car blowing out a tire and crashing into the water below, its driver dead. Jack is able to dive in and rescue the woman sitting in the backseat. Her name, he later finds out, is Sally (Nancy Allen). What Jack doesn’t yet know, but is about to find out, is that the dead guy just so happens to be the Governor of Pennsylvania and a potential Presidential candidate.

With Sally’s cooperation, Jack intends to prove that what he saw that night was no car accident, but rather an assassination. All around him are forces intent on keeping a lid on the situation, including the meticulously homicidal Burke (John Lithgow), who throws the press off the scent by leaving a trail of bodies, thus creating the myth of a serial killer. Lithgow is mostly known for his comedic roles now, but he has also played some great villainous roles. His chilling performance here is one of his best. Dennis Franz is also great as the sleazy photographer responsible for this movie’s “Zapruder film.” He was in on the conspiracy for the money, but insists he was told no one was going to get hurt, much less killed. As grotesque a human being as he is, we believe him.

Of the movies which De Palma himself was responsible for writing as well as directing, “Blow Out” represents his most complete effort by far. Showing that he is truly a director who learns by doing, De Palma draws elements from several of his prior films (“Obsession,” “Sisters,” “Carrie,” “The Fury” & “Dressed to Kill”), throwing in Dario Argento’s vivid color scheme and the usual inspirations from Hitchcock (the most prominent being “North by Northwest”) for good measure. The emphasis that the plot places on what is heard in addition to what is seen demands that this film be viewed in high quality stereo surround sound, preferably with the use of headphones. The main theme from Pino Donaggio’s score, a track entitled “Sally and Jack,” may be recognizable to anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” It is also notable for playing with the audience’s emotions. In a world where political candidates are resorting to having their opponents bumped off in order to get elected, there is still room for love at first sight.

Most impressive about “Blow Out,” however, is the ending. It is at this point that I must insist that anyone who deliberately spoils the ending of “Blow Out” should be flogged. It’s not because of some revelation that the entire movie’s plot hinges on but, in order to truly feel the full impact of the final ten minutes, you must come in unprepared. De Palma had come up with satisfying conclusions to his movies before, but they mostly serve only as a stopping point. This is the first time that one of them tells a story that follows both an A and B plotline, fuses the two together and brings the entire movie full circle. Bad word of mouth concerning this ending caused “Blow Out” to suffer at the box office. Proof that the right answer isn’t always going to be the popular one.

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