Blow Out – Film Review

Blow Out (1981) | The Criterion Collection

Director: Brian De Palma

Written by: Brian De Palma

Starring:

Rating: ★★★★

After making Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s next film was heavily anticipated. Taking inspiration from the conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination, De Palma wrote Blow Out. It was a stark change from his previous film, with a stronger mystery at the centre of the story.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound technician for a low-budget horror film and is tasked with finding the perfect scream. When he’s out one night in a park, he witnesses a car crashing into the river, killing the Governor who was driving the car. He unknowingly records the sound and starts to believe that it wasn’t an accident.

The opening scene is strange and you’re not quite sure what’s going on and then it turns out to be a slasher film Travolta is working on, and that beings a big laugh and the underlying plot point, to find the perfect scream, it works nicely with the finale. The film brings itself full circle in a haunting and downbeat ending that fits the style of the film.  

John Lithgow is perfect in the film. Burke is one of the most sinister characters ever created, truly beyond psychotic. He contrasts well with Jack, who is a more traditional hero. The rest of the cast are also great, but Lithgow is the best of the great bunch. Travolta is joined by Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife at the time, which is a mini reunion from Carrie.

Blow Out also marks the second collaboration between De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously worked together on Obsession, and would go on to make The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia together. The cinematography is excellent, filled with artistic and stylish shots. De Palma’s signature split screen is used to great effect, to give focus to the foreground and background at the same time. The chase sequence towards the end is simply stunning, resulting in a panning shot that circles around Travolta with fireworks going off. The scene was shot outside with the fireworks needing to be timed perfectly. It’s a memorable end to a tense chase.  

There’s also a moment around half way through where Jack realises that his tapes have been wiped. The camera circles around again and again as he manically checks the tapes in his office to find them all wiped. It’s a stunning shot that captures the madness of the moment.

For a film that is so focused on sound, it’s a relief that the sound design is great. The whole thing would fall apart if it doesn’t live up to the premise. The scene with Jack on the bridge at the beginning as he witnesses the car crash is so well designed. There’s a sense of dread about what’s going to happen and the sound builds that perfectly. There’s something unsettling about picking out individual sounds, whether that’s an owl or a couple in the park, it’s unnerving and builds up to the big moment.  Accompanying that is a loud score from Pino Donaggio that would make Hans Zimmer jealous as it stands out in ever scene. It doesn’t always fit what’s happening, but when it does it’s pure magic.

The film does show its age, being forty years old. Some of the driving scenes make the film look fake, especially the backgrounds, which isn’t that unusual but it still stands out when watching this now. It’s only a few moments here and there, but it can take you out of the tense thriller. It’s a minor issue that most people will be able to overlook and get invested in the mystery.

The biggest issue is that the film gives everything away too soon, so it makes some of the later half slower. The madness of the crash, Jack trying to save the people in the car, and the initial mystery is intriguing, but so much is revealed to us as the audience that you’re waiting for the characters to catch up. It makes the later half of the film feel slower when it shouldn’t. The final chase sequence more than makes up for it, so it’s not hard to forgive the slow pacing.

The Criterion collection, as always has some great special features. From interviews with De Palma, and Nancy Allen, to a mock-up of the article from the film that shows the stills of the car crash. It’s a great set, which is topped off with the long thought lost debut film from De Palma, Murder a la Mod. Making the set more than worth it. One of the characters is actually watching the film in Blowout, which is probably why it’s included as an extra, instead of getting its own release.

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About ashleymanningwriter

Young Adult Fiction writer. Horror and fantasy blended together.
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