I've always been kind of back and forth on Brian De Palma. Granted, I haven't seen too many of his films, so I've never really given him a fair chance. I was touched by Carrie, but I never cared for The Untouchables. Things started to turn a little in his direction for me a few years ago, when I saw Phantom of the Paradise, his truly bizarre cult glam rock musical with a soundtrack composed by Paul Williams. Last week, I finally watched the movie that many say is De Palma's finest and most underrated work, Blow Out.
Blow Out stars John Travolta as Jack, a sound effects man for a trashy independent movie studio. The movie opens with a hilariously cartoonish parody of Halloween, a steadicam shot from the perspective of a heavily breathing serial killer entering a girls' dormitory. This, of course is the movie Jack is working on. His boss is unsatisfied with Jack's work, and tasks him to find a new scream for the victim and record some new wind audio for the background.
While at a park recording the wind and nature sounds, Jack is witness to a car's tire blowing out and crashing into a lake. He jumps into the water, and though the driver is clearly dead, he sees the woman in the passenger seat still lives and rescues her. At the hospital, he learns that the man who died is the governor of Pennsylvania, who was primed to run for president. His people request that he keep quiet about the event and aid them in covering it up by sneaking the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), out of the hospital for them. Jack reluctant agrees to do it.
Jack takes Sally, still in shock from the accident, to a motel. While she's out of it, he listens to his recording. In it, he hears two distinctive sounds: not just the sound of the tire blowing out, but a loud bang preceding it. Jack then enlists Sally's help in uncovering a political murder conspiracy, though they are blocked in seemingly every direction they attempt to investigate. Meanwhile, the man who shot out the tire (John Lithgow) is cleaning up the mess he made: by making it appear that a serial killer is on the loose killing prostitutes who resemble her, he will murder Sally and make it seem like she is a victim unconnected to the governor.
Wow, that's a pretty intricate story with a lot of set up. I usually don't need more than one paragraph to give a decent description, but this one took three. What De Palma has crafted with Blow Out is a tragedy wrapped in a conspiracy. As we learn more about Jack's past, we begin to understand his desire to play the hero in all this mess. And Sally, who is not entirely clean herself, gets wrapped up in Jack's futile idealism.
Stylistically, De Palma employs all of the tricks he had been developing through the 70's. He plays with seeing the same scene from different perspectives. He utilizes split screen like nobody else. He does that thing where the foreground of the shot and the background of the shot are both completely in focus, which causes an excellent, jarring effect on the viewer. I don't know what that technique is called, but it's in Blow Out a lot and it looks great. De Palma used Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer, and Zsigmond gives the film a dark, seedy look, with lots of red lights and stuff.
This is probably my second favorite John Travolta performance I've seen, behind Pulp Fiction. I'm not a huge Travolta fan for the most part, but every once in a while, he takes just the right role for himself and runs away with it. John Lithgow is great as usual, but this is really the type of villain role he could do in his sleep.
The score by Pino Donaggio is a pretty mixed bag for me. Some of the music was really unique and underlines the tension and growing sense of paranoia, but at other times, I think it goes way too dramatic and over the top.
I won't give away the ending, but De Palma himself might. If you catch on early enough in the movie, you can see where it's headed. I was pretty in-the-moment when I was watching, so I wasn't really thinking ahead, but my wife totally saw it coming. Still, the ending is appropriate and unsettling. I can see why the movie failed to capture an audience upon its release. Also, that poster up there is pretty terrible, so it might have something to do with that.
I still haven't seen a lot of Brian De Palma's films, but this is probably the best I've seen. Phantom of the Paradise is still my personal favorite for it's craziness and music, but Blow Out is definitely the better movie. He's show-offy and often not very subtle, but he doesn't come across as pretentious to me, which can make those traits tolerable, even endearing at the best of times. I believe I will be checking out more of De Palma's films in the future.