Blow Out (1981)

Directed by Brian De Palma

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Blow Out feels pulpy in the way I imagine much of De Palma’s early work does.  I can only compare it to The Wedding Party and Sisters, the former of which was a kind of experimental, slapstick, beautiful mess, and the latter of which was similarly pulpy, a little deranged, and certainly exciting.  “Exciting” could mean something completely different to different directors, and in the case of De Palma, when I say “exciting” I mean violent, dark and sinister.  That’s not quite right, there’s one adjective missing in there.  There is also a sense of fun in Sisters and Blow Out. The violence is never meant to be dramatic in the manner of maybe a gangster film, but it always has a sense of spectacle, maybe something more in line with a Hitchcock film.

In Blow Out, the violence is never surprising.  It may be a little hard to stomach (pun possibly intended) at times, but the violence is both so horrific and cartoonish that it feels almost otherworldly.  And yeah, maybe this is coming from the perspective of modern day in which you and me have all seen films with incredibly graphic violence, possibly even on accident.  Hell, I recently watched Eastern Promises and good lord the violence in the first five minutes almost made me stop the movie.

So in Blow Out, maybe the violence was meant to sicken you, and maybe it did.  But to me the whole thing felt symbolic.  Now that I think about it, everything in 1970s-ish cinema feels symbolic, like the real story is in the subtext.

What De Palma does with Blow Out is create a strong feeling of dread.  The worst of the violence comes early, at the hand of Burke (John Lithgow), a psychopathic killer like something out of a Hitchcock film.  There always seem to be plenty of Hitchcock references in De Palma films, and when I saw always, I mean in this and Sisters, so perhaps I should speak in such generalizations already.

But De Palma feels Hitchcockian.  Burke, in this film, isn’t just crazy, violent and resourceful, but he can also do a great job impersonating another person’s voice, making him feel not only dangerous but almost more or less than human, I’m not sure which.  He’s a killer not far off from Norman Bates, someone who in this case has a mission, but it’s clear he has a more personal, unhinged mission he’s on.  In this case, we’re told that Burke was instructed to take a particular governor out of the running for president, preferably by blackmail, though Burke runs with this and kills the man.

He is the clear and present danger against which Jack Terry (John Travolta) has to fight.  Now, Terry is a sound recordist for crappy horror films, and one night, while out recording sounds of nature, he sees and most importantly hears a gunshot followed by a car careening off the road and into a river.  He dives in and saves a woman, though the man in the driver’s seat is already dead.

Like a film noire, Terry falls for the woman he saves, Sally, played by Karen Allen, but as he unfolds the mystery before him, he learns that she was not upfront with him, and there are multiple layers (and misdirections for the audience) to the crime.

First, the governor’s team doesn’t want to besmirch his legacy by letting it be known that he was with a young woman.  When Terry, though, insists on getting to the truth, they won’t listen.  Neither will the police who believe the incident to be the result of a simple blow out of one of the tires.

Terry uses his audio recording a film of the event, recorded by a slimy co-conspirator of Sally’s, to document the incident.  Sally and her co-conspirator, it turns out, were trying to blackmail the governor, and the co-conspirator used the footage meant to blackmail the now deceased candidate to instead sell to various news outlets for a profit.

As Terry goes about putting together proof for his story, Burke starts to hunt down him and Sally, wanting to kill them to cover all loose ends.  Terry makes a deal with a local news anchor to play his recording live on air, but Burke, ever the resourceful psychopath, taps his phone line and listens to the call.  He then impersonates the news anchor and arranges a meeting with Sally.

In the third act, the film devolves into a familiar chase sequence as hero chases the villain who has the heroine in his grasp.  It’s like the superhero cliche of Superman going after Lex Luthor as he drags Lois Lane to the top of a skyscraper.

The chase is somewhat predictable and very drawn out.  Terry has given Sally a wire to wear, so he chases after her and Burke using the evidence he puts together by what she says to the man.  In the end, Terry kills Burke but not until after he has killed Sally.  The failure on Terry’s part feels like deja vu after we have seen a flashback in which he similarly failed to save someone on whom he put a wire to go undercover.

In the end, Terry returns to his job as a sound recordist, and he solves a problem he and the film’s producer had with a particular’s girl’s scream by dubbing in the real, terrified screams of Sally shortly before she died.  It’s a genuinely disturbing moment, as we see Terry listen to the screams of the recording alone in his room and then jump to the recognizable seen which we’ve seen played out a few times already from the b horror movie, now with Sally’s scream dubbed in.  Travolta sits in moody lighting, smoking a cigarette and looking like a shell of himself.

The idea of substituting a real scream into a horror movie is striking, and it’s a good capper which almost saves a mostly underwhelming third act.

What I like most about De Palma is the crazy, almost manic environment he seems to create in his films.  Jack Terry, like the heroine of Sisters is possessed by a drive to solve a mystery.  These are characters who get in over their head, involved in some kind of ridiculous mess, but only because they are crazy enough themselves to get involved.  Both films up the crazy to reflect their fragile states of mind as well as the mess in which they find themselves.  These are stories in which the crime isn’t simple and certainly not accidental.  Instead there are real forces of evil behind the respective murders.  Here, Burke feels inherently evil rather than loyal to whoever is paying him.  He’s like No Country For Old Men’s Anton Cigurh, a guy who is paid to track down a missing briefcase of money but clearly has his own sense of morals which dictate how he goes about the job.  The intersections he receives from Stephen Root are only reasons for him to enact his own evil.

And here Burke does the same.  He has his assignment, but in one phone call we are able to see how little respect he has for his orders and how powerless the ones in power are to stop him.  He is a controlled storm, unpredictable yet almost always in complete command.  Not only does he kill Sally to protect the ‘perfect’ crime which killed the governor, but he also kills a couple other women just for the hell of it.  He is truly deranged.

What’s interesting, the more I think about it, about this movie is that it pits a handsome Hollywood star (Travolta) against the villain, like you would expect to see in any number of action movies.  The star actor is the hero, and someone else is the disgusting villain.  But the villain here is truly villainous.  This isn’t just Superman versus Lex Luthor, because even Luthor’s madness is watered down for a wider audience.  Burke’s madness is truly frightening, and at the end of the film we see just how unprepared Travolta’s character was for all of this.

I read somewhere, sometime ago, that the Coen Brothers enjoy making George Clooney look like a fool in their movies.  They take this handsome Hollywood leading man and almost make fun of him, though of course Clooney goes along for the ride.  I had a similar vibe in Blow Out, as if De Palma just wanted to take the guy from GREASE and make him lose his mind.  It’s like he wanted to mess with audiences, knowing they would come for the guy from Saturday Night Fever, not at all expecting what’s to come.  Even if the story is deranged and violent, it feels playful in this way, like to De Palma the conceit of this idea was a practical joke, but he just committed to the bit.

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