Review: Blow Out

Directed by: Brian De Palma
Category: Cult Classics

Brian De Palma writes and directs this brilliant suspense thriller that's equal parts conspiracy theory, serial killer film and Hitchcockian thriller. Blow Out has got to be without a doubt one of the best film experiences I've had in a long while. I loved everything about this geek-infused mystery from start to finish, beginning with De Palma's flat out "brilliant" camera work, the genius opening credit sequence, Pino Donaggio's late 70's, early 80's infused score and Travolta's harrowing portrayal of a man caught in the middle of a cover up who holds the key that could blow the thing wide open and will stop at nothing to tell the truth.

I think most people will agree that when it's all over, and you're trying to process the experience you just had watching this, you can't help but wonder why the hell Blow Out is not more popular and better known in the film community. I just don't get it. This film is amazing, one of the best thrillers I've ever seen and somehow it's slipped through the cracks. But honestly, I'm not really surprised. The marketing and promotion for this film was all wrong. Perfect example is the only DVD release prior to Criterion's 2011 release was MGM's 2001 release. The packaging alone left a lot to be desired. It's literally a completely black cover with a closeup of Travolta's distorted face screaming. That's it. How the hell are you going to gauge what kind of film it's about with a cover like that? Just look at Criterion's new cover here. Just from the image alone you get that this is somehow associated with the film business just by all the reels and endless tape you see all over the place. But you also see that it's an old film judging by the machinery in the picture and most importantly, Travolta himself. This was right after Urban Cowboy when he was at the top of his game. And if you ever wondered whether he was really anything other than a guy in a polyester suit dancing to the Bee Gee's, look no further than Blow Out. He delivers the goods on all fronts here.

Trying to come up with a synopsis this time around is going to be extremely difficult for several reasons. One, I don't want to give away too many plot details here because the less you know, the better. I went into this thing with only the bare minimum info beforehand and was handsomely rewarded afterwards with how complex it ultimately became. Two, when it's all over, it's almost like 3 different stories somehow and ingeniously rolled into one by a master filmmaker in his prime. So here it goes.

John Travolta plays Jack, a sound effects technician for low-budget crappy horror films. At the behest of his boss he goes out to record new "wind" sounds to use in there films. Yes you heard correctly, wind. While out late one night in a park recording sounds of nature he hears a car barreling down the road in a distance. He aims his microphone recorder towards the vehicle and watches as the vehicle seems to have a blow out causing it to careen into the river. Jack jumps into the river to help and saves a woman who was in the back seat. Only one thing bothers him. He's sure he heard a sound right before the blow out and since he was recording it at the time, his suspicions are confirmed. However, once  this information gets out, he soon realizes he's opened up a Pandora's Box of conspiracy, deceit and cold blooded murder. 

The visual artistry displayed here by writer/director Brian De Palma is simply amazing. I was simply "wowed" the entire time and that's something I don't say often. He incorporates his split screen technique in a few scenes, but not as often as you would expect. But it works so effectively here, and it never plays out too long. This is also the first time he incorporates steadi-cam, also to great effect. But that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the camera tricks he's got up his sleeve. Simple shots take on a life of there own all because of where he just simply places the camera. I just couldn't get enough of it because I eat that shit up.

You also have to admire how De Palma revolves the story around a sound technician who works on sleazy low-budget horror films. For filmgeeks, it's a blast watching how they go about working on these kinds of films and how important a good scream is.

The cast was pretty great here. Travolta delivers the goods, and Nancy Allen (Robocop) as the woman he saves from the river does a convincing job as a ditsy damsel in distress who might have bitten off more than she can chew. A young and fully haird Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) also entertains as a scuzzy opportunist. But it's John Lithgow who really steals the show. I won't go into specifics, but the guy who's mainly known for comedy goes down a really dark path in this one and it's his performance more than any other that stays with you. But I also must say the visuals play such an important role here. When working with the right material, Brian De Palma can create some stunning taut and suspenseful sequences. Like the sequence in The Untouchables in the bus station with that baby stroller. Thrilling, thrilling stuff. I mention that sequence because there's one in here done in a similar way in a subway station that almost made it feel like a completely different film, but in a good way.

Criterion really did a bang up job on this transfer. The film simply looks stunning in it's 1:77:1 aspect ratio which utilizes De Palma's inventive camera work to great effect. The sound, which plays such an enormous part in the film, as well as the score is awesome. And that opening sequence and title sequence. That is really something. I think I had a grin a mile long on that one and immediately I knew I was in for something special. Blow Out is a tragically overlooked gem for all parties involved and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.


  1. Great review rG, A particular favourite of mine this and the Criterion blu is stunning. One of the best releases of the past year or so. I think it has started to become more well known since Tarantino said it was one of his favourite movies.

  2. Never watched this but your review's made me interested in picking it up. Haven't seen a lot of DePalma's early work and feel I probably should.

  3. I have seen this quite a few years ago, maybe even just on tv...but I agree, its a great film...and hell, I remember that damn bad cover artwork...

  4. Martin: I have to completely agree with you, one of the best releases in years. I'm glad Criterion chose this as one of there releases, otherwise I probably wouldn't have ever had the opportunity to check it out. And it's awesome that we have people like Tarantino, true filmgeeks who make us aware of hidden gems we might not have ever come across otherwise.

    Jack: Dude, you "HAVE" to see it. It's a great thriller in general, but for hardcore filmgeeks like us, it's just plain brilliant. De Palma has changed his style over the last decade, but I enjoy his early work more than anything. It was much more specific back then. You could just tell what was a "Brian De Palma" film back then, even all the way up to The Untouchables. The late 70's to mid 80's was his best output. But definitely give Blow Out a shot. Can't wait to get your take on it.

    Hellford667: I'm telling you! For such an incredible film, MGM gave it such a shitty cover. I mean, you can't get any kind of information from that stupid cover. It looked like something a high school kid came up with in art class. So glad Criterion picked up the slack and did the film justice with that rad cover. That cover alone says a lot.