Brian De Palma’s early work often engenders a schizophrenic reaction in me, enticing with cagey genre content and cinephile aspirations, but also distracting with overt technique. Blow Out (1981) sums up the push-pull of my De Palma fascination perfectly. The detailed, meticulous construction of its mystery is pure, compelling filmmaking, but the film’s second half is overlong, clunky, and obvious.
Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound designer for a C-movie film studio in Philadelphia. When his boss complains that his work is getting stale, he ventures out one night to record ambient sounds in a park in an attempt to freshen up his FX library. By sheer coincidence, he happens to be recording just as a car on a nearby roadway blows out a tire to crash through a guardrail and into a creek. Terry dives into the water to help, rescuing a passenger: Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), an aspiring makeup artist. But later, at the hospital, Terry learns that the man driving the car was a popular governor and likely presidential candidate, who died. Immediately pressured to keep Sally’s presence in the car private, Terry nonetheless wants to get to the truth, enlisting Sally’s aid as he analyzes his recordings in an attempt to solve the mystery behind the crash.
Blow Out isn’t exactly a remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s great Blowup, but that film – which involves a photographer accidentally capturing images that involve him in mystery – is a clear, direct influence. At first, it displays real artistry, especially during the crucial inciting incident, which relies strictly on pure, immersive audio-visual storytelling. This key sequence is lovingly crafted, as are subsequent scenes where Terry’s AV expertise is depicted. Travolta is accessible and engaging at the center of these conspiracy thriller machinations. Unfortunately, his efforts pay off, demystifying the plot far too thoroughly. By the time the clumsy action-adventure of the third act kicks in, the film has talked over its own mystique. There’s a certain tragic neatness to the ending, and John Lithgow is on hand to establish his villainous bona fides, but the messy crassness of the final half-hour unravels an otherwise impressive film.