Rated R for some really meta nudity. Because John Travolta's character is a foley guy on horror films, we get to see those horror films. Those horror films have a lot of nudity. Brian De Palma can take a weird high ground saying, Blow Out itself isn't a dirty movie. It's just all the stuff INSIDE of Blow Out that is dirty. Brian De Palma, you cheeky monkey. I mean, the rest of the movie has a bunch of swearing and murder. There actually might be nudity somewhere else in the film, but my check box was ticked in the first fifteen minutes. R.
DIRECTOR: Brian De Palma
After a streak (A STREAK!) of mediocre to bad movies, I finally get to write about one that actually really impressed me. I'm a fan of The Conversation. I'm kind of a fan of Blow Up. When videos and special features told me that I hadn't really seen the quintessential version of this movie in Blow Out, I didn't believe them. The Conversation and Blow Up are so good. I almost avoided Blow Out because I'm the snob's snob. I get snobby about already snobby films. I mean, Blow Out is a Criterion release. (So is Supercop if you go back far enough, but you know what I mean.) So I watched it and was genuinely impressed...with the exception of one scene.
I really want to complain about this part first because it is the only thing that stopped me from instantly buying this movie and showing it to everyone. MAJOR SPOILERS because I need to really break down this scene. The movie is so good and I really can't stress this enough. But for some reason, there's one long sequence toward the end that completely wrecks the movie. Sally has been captured by John Lithgow's Burke. They have taken a subway train and he has to catch her by vehicle, so he's pulling a Die Hard with a Vengeance. He has to drive super illegally, leading him past police roadblocks and into a parade. Because he isn't an action superstar, he crashes his vehicle right into a department store window, where he is knocked unconscious. He wakes up seemingly hours later. It is now night. I don't know where Burke has taken Sally that has delayed him killing her before this point, but that is only a minor hiccup. The big thing is that the parade is still going on. Jack gets up and just leaves the ambulance. There isn't an APB to find him. He just exits the ambulance and starts looking around for Sally with his audio equipment. Why is this scene in here? Was there a need for a big last act moment that heightened the tension? This movie isn't an action movie. It's a thriller, sure. But it's a psychological thriller. There's no need for this sequence. It completely pulls the audience out from the reality that this movie has created. It's such a tightrope that the movie maintains throughout the film and then it throws it all away. Part of me thinks that this is to get Jack holding Sally's body juxtaposed and lit with the fireworks from the Liberty Celebration. But there's other ways to make that work. Why not just have Sally meet Burke at twilight? Maybe straight up make it night. That's completely reasonable. I also have a feeling that De Palma really just wanted to film a Jeep driving through downtown Philadelphia structures. This sequence doesn't serve the film at all. It's so nuanced and then this sledgehammer just takes a whack at it. I don't know if I'm the only person who has a problem with this or if this is a common criticism. If fireworks were ever a metaphor for being bombastic, this is it. The movie is so intimate and then it just loses the tone at the end. It's really weird. I love the absolute ending, but the climax is kind of a disaster.
But the rest of the film is amazing. I don't know what it is about these kinds of stories that really intrigue me. I like the idea of the unsuspecting hero. Jack at least has ties to police work before this moment. But he was always the tech guy. The police background for him does a lot to service his character. It is a little bit of plausible deniability. The fact that Jack keeps his cool when a lot of people would handle this way worse can be explained away by his limited exposure to police work. It also gives him a reason to not trust the police and regret his own decision making skills. When someone needs to build a character, Blow Out should be tool to explain what makes a good character work. Jack isn't awesome at everything. Rather, he's good at one thing. I'm teaching Emerson's Self-Reliance today. It discusses how people are really great at only a few things and that they shouldn't try to be other things. (That's a real mess of an explanation, but I'm trying to avoid being distracted.) Jack could easily have become a Mary Sue. Instead, he's good at a handful of things, but kind of sucks at others. He has reasons why he sucks at some things and is bad at others. It's really weird, but there's this flashback in the middle of the film that could easily be seen as an infodump. But De Palma times that flashback really well. We actually get to know Jack pretty well before his past is revealed. When that past is revealed, it kind of just takes what we know and gives us perspective on the whole thing. It's fascinating. If this scene was at any other point of the movie, it'd almost seem melodramatic. It seems odd that this foley guy for garbage films would have had this police background. But it also gives, within the world of Blow Out, a tonally appropriate explanation for what makes Jack tick. I love when the plot services the character, not the other way around. Blow Out has an extremely tight plot. It's very very good. But this is fundamentally a study at what makes Jack and, to a larger extent, people tick under pressure. Jack takes the same ideas that we saw in Blow Up and puts it under a pressure cooker. (I wrote "under pressure" too many times, but "pressure cooker" works really well in this case.)
Jack's breakdown is really well balanced. I like when movies play with the idea of paranoia being justified. Unlike some films, Blow Out never really makes you question whether or not the paranoia is justified, like in Rear Window. We know that everyone is lying. We see that moment that is pretty rare to see in a film like this. We get to see Jack choose to maintain the conspiracy pretty early on. We know what the truth of the matter is through Jack's skills. His recording and memory of the events is really interesting. De Palma's use of audio coupled with how Jack views the world instantly eliminates any question of what happened. Because Jack doesn't necessarily know the "why" of the entire situation, we have to deduce why things happened, very much like Jack. But Jack really holds our hands through the situation as he solves very different elements. I also like that Jack uses the tools at his disposal to unravel a very complicated knot of mystery. Seemingly, a recording of a blow out shouldn't be enough to piece together the events of an assassination. But all of those steps keep the story going. I think of forensic procedure shows that try doing the same thing and it is never as clean as all of this. There's always a computer simulation that assumes a lot. Jack's grass roots way of solving what happened is compelling. But when all of this happens, the movie holds off on telling us that Burke is involved in the story. Burke does not come into the story until pretty late in the game. I love how John Lithgow has a history of playing creepy serial killers. I adored him in his season of Dexter. He's genuinely unnerving and so outside of the characterization that the other characters receive. We get Nancy Allen's Sally and Dennis Franz's Manny, although both of them kind of play stereotypes of their characters. Lithgow's character we can only piece together based on people's reactions to him. It's really interesting seeing what kind of character that he is. He's simultaneously this destructive force and agent of order. It's really complex and the movie is smart to not explore it. Instead, he becomes this chaotic element that doesn't really have any limits. We never really get to know how skilled or insane this character really is. When Burke is holding Sally, Sally is genuinely at risk. The only thing we know is that Burke doesn't make mistakes.
Sally is interesting. She might be the byproduct of 1981. She is a very shallow character compared to how deep Jack is. I mean, I love her backstory. I love her involvement in the entire conspiracy. I love that she dies. (Not because I want the woman character to be fridged. I just like the idea that the movie needed to not have a happy ending because consequences matter.) But it's so striking to see one character get so much attention to becoming a realistic character and then Sally is just an archetype. She's pretty flat and ditsy as a character. I don't mind having a character have a strong trait, but this seems kind of lazy. Considering that the movie is so good, this moment kind of bothers me. But Blow Out is such a good movie. I love being surprised by films. Every so often, I need a movie to hit my favorites list. This is one of my happy surprises for the year. Yeah, that one moment in the parade is such a misfire and some of the things come across as lazy. But the movie as a whole is absolutely wonderful. I don't regret catching this one for a moment.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.