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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 27.27%
Average: 4.55%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 9.09%

1 review, 16 user ratings

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Blow Out
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by MP Bartley

"The Sound of Fear."
5 stars

We all love a good conspiracy theory, even if it is just to amuse ourselves at the ridiculous nature of them and the tenuous connections touted as fact. No wonder then, that the conspiracy theory can be one of the most fertile inspirations for directors and screen writers alike. And no surprise that Brian De Palma turns in one of the very best.

After all, rarely do you see the words 'Brian De Palma' in a sentence without the words 'Alfred Hitchcock' following quickly behind. And while that's a little unfair - seriously, any director trying to engender tension and danger in a subtle and clever manner is essentially following in Hitchcock's footsteps - Blow Out is essentially the kind of film that Hitchcock made in his prime - with one innocent man stumbling onto a small very clue of a wider crime. But De Palma deserves enormous credit for not just churning out a facsimile of the tubby one's greatest hits, but for turning the conspiracy film into something a great deal darker and disturbing.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound effects supervisor on a series of cheap horror movies, responsible for finding the right kind of screams, lighting claps and heavy breathings for the slasher films he's employed on. Sick of the limited stock sound effects that he has at the studio, he takes his recording equipment out one night to record the ambient noises he finds in a park in the dead at night. The solitude is shattered however, by a car crashing into a nearby river. Jumping in he finds the driver dead, but manages to save the passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen).

Once they get taken to the hospital however, Jack gets told by the local authorities to forget that Sally was ever in the car. It turns out that the dead men is a presidential candidate and Sally is most definitely not his wife, daughter or friend of the family. Reluctantly, Jack agrees to say nothing about finding Sally to protect the dead man's family. But there is something else troubling Jack about the evening's events, and going back to his sound recordings of that night, he discovers that the car crash was not just a tragic accident resulting from a simple tyre blowing out, but something more sinister. His investigations attract the attention of those wanting the whole thing covering up, who then enlist brutal killer Burke (John Lithgow) to ensure Jack and Sally don't get their story out in the open.

De Palma's great fault as a director has always been his lack of restraint. He thunders into films with not a trace of subtlety, but unlike, say, Oliver Stone, who has a similar approach, De Palma misses as much as he hits. Blow Out, however, is a dead-eyed hit that ranks alongside else in his filmography. The film crackles with a vivid atmosphere and has several of the most thrilling scenes De Palma has ever constructed with his exuberant style welded onto a film that doesn't buckle under his charged approach.

The story itself could never be accused of originality, but it's the nuances and slants that De Palma finds within it that resonate. The opening film-within-a-film segment sums up just how much fun De Palma is having. A POV slasher flick that Jack is working on, it manages to neatly sum up all the blood and thunder, sex and blood thrills that De Palma revels in (a female character masturbates for no good reason) while cheekily detaching himself from it - see, I'm not really making a film like that, seems to be his joke here. But what's clever about it is that it sets up a thematic undercurrent that resonates throughout the film and pays off superbly at the end.

This undercurrent is one of media manipulation and the construction of a lie, which we see most elegantly when Jack reconstructs the events of that night via his sound recordings to piece together the reality of what happened. Not only is this a superb deconstruction of how a film is put together, but it also serves the plot and gives an insight into Jack, as his mind whirrs feverishly, as he connects the dots both literally and figuratively.

In fact, the whole film whirrs feverishly as De Palma keeps throwing in audacious conceits to keep us on our toes. A serial killer subplot is one that has only a tangential connection to the main plot of the film, but De Palma crafts one of the most nerve tangling sequences of the film as the killer stalks a soon-to-be victim through an empty train station bathroom.

We also have an unexpected flashback to Jack's previous job where we find out just why he's such a nervous, flighty character. It's not really needed, but it adds real depth to the characterisation and when De Palma pulls it off as smartly as this, you really don't mind. It's just a shame that he couldn't bring this elegant handling of multi-strands to the turkey that was The Black Dahlia. And the final confrontation is a marvellous transition from a taut cat-and-mouse game to an explosive finale drenched in colour that demonstrates De Palma's adroit juxtaposition of the emotional content to the visual style.

Travolta has rarely been as good as he is here, mining real, troubled dramatic depths from Jack. The character of Jack is pretty much a rarity in the sub-genre of conspiracy films. Most films quickly establish the hero as the man in the right, constantly running up against stony brick walls of silence. While Jack may have stumbled upon the truth here, the film cleverly isolates from all reason. We understand why no-one takes him seriously, because he is a little odd, frankly. It's rare that a film positions us to view the main character the same way that the other disbelieving characters and it's a refreshing and intelligent change.

And as with most conspiracy thrillers, Blow Out, ends with a monumentally bleak ending. It goes beyond simple "the bad guys are going to get away with it" shocks (if you think I'm giving the end away, I'm not. It's ambiguous to say the least...). It goes somewhere much, much darker, whilst paying off a subtly asked question from earlier in the film.

When I initially came away from Blow Out, I was having an internal debate as to how I would rate it. It's not perfect - there's a slight lag in the middle section - but weeks after seeing it, images from the film and the tricks and turns it takes are still percolating away in my head. Daring, intelligent, nerve-jangling and brilliantly, brilliantly disturbing, the more I think about it, the stronger I feel that De Palma has created a masterpiece.

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originally posted: 05/02/09 02:55:32
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good depalma film 4 stars
5/14/15 Anne Don't know what to say - some of the photograpy is extraordinary 2 stars
2/04/14 fartvenugen One of the most highly overrated films ever 1 stars
2/11/12 Jeff Wilder Easily De Palma's best film. 5 stars
9/21/11 Mark Gorman A suspenseful masterpiece 5 stars
3/21/11 Billy Um? 1 stars
5/14/09 Colin M This makes me wonder why Travolta didn't get more roles as an action hero. 4 stars
5/04/09 Steve D Very suspenseful; good story with very good acting by Travolta 4 stars
4/29/07 William Goss One of DePalma's better thrillers, and as politically potent as it is tense. 4 stars
1/30/04 TC Travolta is amazing in this...classic DePalma. 5 stars
11/04/03 Diver of Muff Compared to BdP's usual failures, this one's a masterpiece. Visually strange, suspenseful 5 stars
3/14/03 Jack Sommersby Searingly beautiful and brilliant. De Palma's and Travolta's finest work. 5 stars
3/13/03 R.W. Welch Downbeat ending killed it at the box office, but not too shabby overall. 4 stars
3/13/03 mr. Pink Not one of De Palma's best, but still exciting. Travolta is great in this. 4 stars
3/12/03 Charles Tatum Better than "Blow-Up," which ain't saying much 3 stars
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  24-Jul-1981 (R)
  DVD: 26-Apr-2011


  02-Feb-1981 (M)

Directed by
  Brian De Palma

Written by
  Brian De Palma

  John Travolta
  Nancy Allen
  John Lithgow
  Dennis Franz
  Peter Boyden
  Curt May

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