Brian De Palma has his share of detractors. Some say he’s too concerned with style over substance or that he’s too jokey/cynical or he’s just a poor man’s Hitchcock. What can’t be said about De Palma, unless one is just being deliberately obtuse, is that he lacks ambition. His penchant for frequently venturing into unknown territory is a double-edged quality, but when De Palma is firing on all cylinders, the result is thrilling.
Probably no film confirms that more than Blow Out, a work that functions as a political thriller, a self-reflexive examination of filmmaking, a moody character piece and an ultimately chilling horror film — all with impeccable grace and style. There are no muddled genre exercises or pale imitations here. Even though the film undoubtedly owes inspiration to Antonioni’s Blowup and Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma is mining new territory more than constructing homages.
John Travolta, in a performance that reveals the potential his career didn’t exactly make good on, stars as Jack, a sound effects technician for a sleazy exploitation movie studio in Philadelphia. He’s outside one night, recording wind noise for an effect, when he hears a bang, sees a car careening out of control and watches it break through the railing and plunge into a lake.
He dives in and is able to save the female passenger, but the male driver is already dead. Later, at the hospital, he discovers the driver was the governor and a shoo-in for presidential candidate, and the cover-up machine is churning away, with an aide instructing him to forget about the whole incident. No one must know the governor died in the midst of having an affair.
Jack is dissatisfied with this turn of events, but begins to develop a tentative romance with the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), a makeup artist who also participates in blackmail schemes. When he gets a hold of video footage shot that night by her collaborator (Dennis Franz), Jack merges his sounds with the images to create a film of what happened — and what he believes is no accident.
De Palma feeds the audience information with expert skill, initially allowing us to digest it at a similar pace to Jack. In the early scene where he’s out recording, De Palma uses increasingly wide shots paired with rhythmic editing that’s informed by the sound design. Later, when Jack is recreating the moment in his head, we get the sense that a virtuosic director is capturing the trancelike operation of a virtuosic character. Both scenes allow the audience to traverse Jack’s path of discovery with him.