Though he is told that the car had a blow out, Jack reviews his recording and hears a distinctive bang which he believes is a gunshot. Meanwhile, a sleazy photographer, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), having captured the accident with a movie camera, is peddling his film to the tabloids. Jack pieces together stills from a magazine and creates a movie with his recorded sound, now convinced that the accident was an assassination. He stops Sally from leaving town, but he gets no help from the police, who write him off as a “conspiracy nut.” The plot only thickens when a mysterious man (John Lithgow) seems intent on a cover-up, destroying evidence and targeting Sally for murder.
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) is a stunning and memorable thriller. His films are always visually rich and intricate. They are typically about perspective, but in this film, he questions not only what a person sees but also what is heard (at one point, Jack is mocked for being an “ear witness”). Jack’s amateur investigation is initiated by his audio recording, and his conclusion that an unusual sound is from a gun is mere speculation. When he’s able to view the film, what he sees is not a revelation but simply confirmation of what he’s already suspected. The notion of sound truly takes a front seat in the film, and it helps an audience relate to a character working in an uncommon field.
That is not to say that De Palma’s camera isn’t telling the story. Many of his films have a cynical edge, a quiet criticism underlining the movie. In Blow Out, there are constant visual reminders of an upcoming Liberty Day celebration. This is functional for the plot, but also works against the political conspiracy throughout. It seems highly critical of politics or, more specifically, politicians themselves. Those who seek to be elected into office may speak of nationalism or promise to fight in favor of the country and/or state. Blow Out separates politics from an ideal such as patriotism. In this case, the road to an elected position has not a thing to do with a national belief and everything to do with whitewashing, secrecy and murder.
In Blow Out, as well as other De Palma films, what characters perceive is not necessarily the truth, and sometimes the two are contradictions. The film begins with a person’s point-of-view, but this already is an illusion, as it is footage from a movie in progress. Similarly, TV reporters are usually reporting what Jack (and the audience) knows isn’t true. The added political element of Blow Out furthers this notion by supplementing the idea that perception can be altered to manufacture a truth. When Jack challenges the request to disregard Sally’s presence at the scene, he says, “That is the truth, isn’t it?” The response he is given is an assertion of the film’s theme: “What difference does that make to you?” Jack spends so much of the film trying to obtain the truth, but the truth is ever-changing, an unstable concept that makes achieving it an impossibility.
Travolta and Allen, who had both starred in a previous De Palma film, Carrie (1976), are wonderful together. Travolta’s acting chops had almost been sidelined for music-laden gems such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980), and Blow Out was a good opportunity to show his abilities. His performance is superbly understated, and though Jack is delving further into a conspiratorial plot, he remains believable and easily garners audience support. Allen, who was the director’s wife at the time and had a starring role in his previous film, Dressed to Kill (1980), plays Sally with a childlike vulnerability. It’s an interesting opposition to her character’s profession, as well as to her rugged, street-smart characters from the earlier De Palma movies. Though both actors are outstanding, the film’s highlight, in terms of acting, is Lithgow. He’s both fascinating and loathsome, but more than anything, he’s utterly terrifying. It’s a performance that reverberates for days.
Travolta and Allen are not the only cast members appearing in other De Palma films. Franz had been in The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill and would star in Body Double (1984). Lithgow had made an appearance in Obsession (1976) and would provide an impressive performance (playing multiple characters) in 1992’s Raising Cain. Additionally, composer Pino Donaggio, editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had all previously worked with De Palma and would work with him again.
Blow Out was a critical champion but a disappointment at the box office. This is undoubtedly due to the ending, which is depressingly ironic and may not be to everyone’s taste. The film, however, is one of De Palma’s greatest efforts. It’s an examination of the senses, questioning what people see and hear. Such is the cinema of Brian De Palma: one cannot trust anything. The only thing that is absolutely certain is that De Palma is a director of high caliber and unparalleled skill.