Review Date: August 11, 2004
Released by: MGM
Release date: 8/28/2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Call him a misogynist or a visual show off, but there is no denying that Brian De Palma has been one of the most consistently interesting and edgy directors of American cinema for over 30 years. All of his films are rich with recurring themes and visual motifs, and his contributions to cinema as an art form have been many. Perhaps his best contribution, his overlooked and under seen Blow Out
, will be the focus for this review. Released in 1980 to glowing reviews but nil box office, Blow Out
has been given another life on DVD thanks to the folks at MGM. Take a deep breath…let’s deconstruct this American masterpiece.
The film begins with oft-putting synthesizer music, harsh breathing and a shaky first person point of view shot. Slowly, the breather creeps around a college dorm full of young, naked girls. Some girls are having sex and dancing to bad disco music, while another sits doing her homework. We know already which one will survive the night. The killer continues into the dorm, and makes his way into the shower, where he pulls open the curtain and raises his knife (another Psycho
homage?). The woman screams in horror, and Jack (John Travolta) busts a gut with laugher. It is one of the worst screams in history, and it is then that the viewer discovers that it was all just a bad horror film-within-a-film.
Jack is the sound man responsible for that terrible scream, and his boss orders him to go out and get some new sound effects, especially a new scream. Jack heads out into the park, where he engages in some voyeuristic listening. Complete with a microphone and recorder, he listens in on conversations, animal calls and scenic sounds, but in no way was he prepared for what he hears next. With a huge bang, the tire of a limo blows out, and the car is sent into the river. Jack, still shocked, dives in to rescue whoever is in there, and finds inside the possible future president along with a hooker. The president is dead, but the hooker, Sally (Nancy Allen), is very much alive, and Jack saves her life.
After she is brought to the hospital and Jack is asked to keep her identity a secret, he realizes that there is a conspiracy at work. After playing back the sound that he recorded, he concludes that the tire did not merely “blow out”, but instead was shot out by a gun. After learning a photographer was also there the night the car sank, and that he has all the pictures, Jack assembles the pictures and audio together to make it a movie. The assembled movie proves it was more than just an accident, but the perpetrator, Burke (John Lithgow), will not allow the footage to be brought out to the public. The lives of Jack, Sally and Burke are all intertwined in a shocking and mesmerizing conclusion.
is one of the most daring and ambitious films of the 1980’s. De Palma, never afraid to examine the darker parts of our society, takes a look at political corruption and scandal in an open and scathing manner. The fact that he makes this film distinctly American is a bold one, for in doing so he holds the post-Watergate nation in contempt. Not only are politicians to blame for dishonesty, but plenty of time is also spent attacking another major institution, the police. In De Palma’s America there are prostitutes, petty criminals, grimy streets, immoral sex and uncompromising murders. To paint a picture of America in such a stark fashion, when most American films are all about cohesive families and favorable social institutions, is only one of the many reasons that makes this film daring and unique.
Perhaps the film’s most daring aspect though, is its vicious and darkly ironic climax. I wouldn’t dare reveal it, but needless to say it gutsy and highly memorable. Given De Palma’s constant criticism of being a misogynist, the ending holds even more potency. The ending to Blow Out
certainly gives detractors a reason to cry foul at De Palma’s film, but De Palma quells any outrage by pointing the finger himself at a group films far more deserving of critical scorn, the slasher film.
The movie-within-a-movie beginning of Blow Out
contains all the clichés that the slasher film is built upon: horny, careless and naked women who have nothing better to do than to remove their clothing, masturbate and have sex. A few slasher flicks aside, most slasher films could care less about their female characters, and they are offered merely as prey for the predominantly male killer. The female characters are hardly ever fleshed out narratively, and live in a misogynistic world, where the male character is the only one with power, and the only one who ultimately prevails. Given the bleak and cruel world that the slasher film paints of its female victims, how could anyone lodge complaints against De Palma?
Nancy Allen’s Sally character, however annoying, is still given much more respect and development than any slasher films care to offer their female leads. Not only that, but she is loved and cared for by Jack. By showing the “Co-Ed Frenzy” slasher at the beginning of Blow Out
, De Palma reveals a rat far more hateful of women than any of his own films. He begins the film by critiquing all his haters, and ends it by giving them a good slap in the face. De Palma is a man with a consistent vision, and not even angry attackers can tarnish the Hitchcockian woman-in-peril character that frequents his films.
Another theme that De Palma explores through this film is perhaps the most important of all his films. The theme is that of perception and comprehension, and how one views and interprets the real world. Nearly every single film written and directed by Brian De Palma (from Hi, Mom!
all the way to Femme Fatale
) have explored how people capture fragments of the real world in order to explore it further. There is almost always a character much like Brian De Palma himself in his films, the character of photographer.
Nicolas Bardo from Femme Fatale
had a significant influence on Laure’s life by taking a candid snap of her face, and he also better understood his world by creating an artificial collage of reality through pictures. Body Double
explored voyeurism, as the main character spent major portions of the film staring through the lens of a telescope. Snake Eyes
explores how video cameras do not capture every minute detail. Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed To Kill
uses a camera in order to photograph what appears to be the killer, but of course the camera cannot reveal all. In Blow Out
, the camera man is there, played by Dennis Franz, but another capturer of reality, Travolta’s soundman, is more important.
More so than any other of his films, Blow Out
is De Palma’s most comprehensive take on how a voyeur can use technology to piece together an artificial reality. What is interesting though, is that Jack’s constructed reality of what happened in the car crash actually aids in his understanding of the real world. Although cameras and microphones only capture fragments of the macroscopic world, they can still be used to help create a broader understanding of our surroundings.
In Blow Out
, Jack’s life is consumed by his need to capture and use sound, be it for his films or for his desire to understand what really happened in the world. The final shot of the film, and this is not ruining much, is of Jack covering his ears. The microphone itself is a technological extension of the ear, able to capture streams of audio. Travolta’s character had become so devoted to using what he captured in his microphone to understand his world, that when he finally hears what he captures at the end, it alerts him to the horror of the situation. He could not understand what happened in the car crash until he played it back on his tape deck, just as he could not understand the horror at the end until his microphone recording was played.
Has man become overly dependent on technology, like Jack always using his recordings as objective proof, or does this technology enable us to understand the world in a more complete form? De Palma questions both topics in his film, and his final conclusion is complex and ambiguous.
To further prove his devotion to the topic of capturing reality, De Palma makes reference to two major films dealing with the same subject: Blowup
and Peeping Tom
. The reference to Blowup
, which is about a man who takes a snapshot he shouldn’t have, is obviously covered by the title for De Palma’s film, and in the film as Jack listens in the park, a woman can be heard calling him a “peeping tom”. Peeping Tom
is about a man who photographs his murders on video. Even the opening shot is done in the first person, to demonstrate how De Palma himself captures first person imagery on film.
is layered with extensive commentary on American institutions like politics and policing, and at its heart is explores the theme of trying to understand the world through technology. Without all the subtext and social critiquing though, Blow Out
still remains an exhilarating and first-rate conspiracy/action/horror hybrid that will appeal to those looking only for a good time. The visuals are some of De Palma’s most creative and awe inspiring, from his split-screens to his dual diopters. John Travolta’s performance as Jack is probably his best, full of emotion and urgency, and handled with extreme maturity.
The only real complaint that can be lodged against the film, is the performance of Nancy Allen as Sally. She gives her character a lightheaded, nasally presentation, and it often appears both amateur and annoying. Had De Palma not been bedding Ms. Allen, he surely would have chosen a better lead for the part. Allen was great in De Palma’s other films like Carrie
and Dressed To Kill
, and she does give her character here a personality, but there is something from her performance in Blow Out
that doesn’t quite hold up.
Allen’s performance aside, Blow Out
is a masterpiece, and certainly one of the richest and most rewarding American movies of the last 25 years. Over his extensive movie career, Brian De Palma has made some of the most edgy, artful and fascinating movies to come from America. While people are busy complaining about misogyny and Hitchchock lifting, De Palma is busy making great films. Blow Out
just may be his greatest, and it is one that should be seen by any serious filmgoer.
is presented in its original breathtaking 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, and it is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The picture is quite good, if a bit soft. Images contain a some grain, but given the 24 year old age of the film, that is to be expected. There are a few specs here and there, but the print is pretty clean. Color saturation is very nice, and De Palma’s red and blue hues look deep and full of vibrancy. The aforementioned cinematography is some of De Palma’s strongest, and thankfully MGM has done a good job at presenting it in all its glory.
A despicable pan and scan version is included on the other side, and if you are even thinking about watching it then what the hell are you doing with a Brian De Palma film?
The film is presented in a 2 channel Dolby mix, and it sounds pretty good. Given that there is significant time spent on sound and its processing in the film, there are some nice bits of directional movement that capture the audible pathways with style. The track lacks the punch of other Dolby tracks, and seems quite flat at times, but overall it is a very satisfying mix.
The only trailer included is a classy theatrical trailer that sets up the film without giving away too much. The overall lack of any other supplemental material though, is a real disappointment. This film, perhaps more than any other of De Palma’s works, has a very interesting and labored history to it. There were several problems surrounding the production, most notably the fact that several reels of footage were stolen from a van as they were being transported to the lab. This caused major problems with De Palma and the entire crew, and led to many changes in production, including the proposed release date.
Given the great special editions that Laurent Bouzereau and MGM brought De Palma fans with the Carrie
and Dressed To Kill
discs, Blow Out
should warrant a hefty re-release. The reason no supplements were included this time, is that Bouzereau expressed interest in the De Palma films too late, as bare bones discs of Blow Out
had already been pressed. Carrie
and Dressed To Kill
hadn’t been pressed yet, and therefore MGM was able to make them into special editions. Bouzereau claims that Blow Out
is one of his favorite De Palma films, so it is a shame he did not get to give it the special edition treatment it deserves.
Rich with social commentary, misogynistic critique and debate regarding perception versus reality, Blow Out
is one of the great American films. The audio and video transfers are good, if not great, and present the film in a manner that will be sure to please fans. The exclusion of any substantial supplemental content given the challenging nature and rocky history of the film is a let down, but maybe one day this release will get the devotion it deserves. At only $14.98 though, regardless of its lack of supplements, this is a film that should be in everybody’s DVD collection. This movie, and the disc, is far from a blow out.
Movie – A
Image Quality – B
Sound – B
Supplements – C
- Running time - 1 hour 48 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Stereo
- Spanish Dolby Stereo
- French Subtitles
- Spanish Subtitles