Second Criterion: ‘Blow Out’


In the opening minutes of Blow Out, Brian De Palma presents one of cinema’s great misdirects. What starts off as a poorly made slasher film is all a ruse. It’s a film that the protagonist of Blow Out is working on. Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound editor. His boss complains he is getting lazy, reusing old material, so Jack goes out to record some audio and finds himself stumbling into the midst of a large political conspiracy.

A lot of what Blow Out is about and what it is trying to say must be understood from the cheesy slasher flick opening. It’s no coincidence that De Palma chooses a genre that exposes the seediness of youth and the voyeuristic gaze of a killer. These ideas begin to bleed into the film and inform the larger themes. The central idea is that society seeks to hide the lurid, presenting something more sterile and easy to digest.

When Jack falls in the middle of this conspiracy, he rescues Sally (Nancy Allen) from a car that drives off the highway into a pond. The driver of the car doesn’t make it. It turns out this driver was the governor and the leading candidate in the presidential races. Why was Sally with this man? That’s something that the authorities would rather not answer. They try to hush up Jack and tell him not to mention the girl. After all, why expose the dirty laundry of a dead man? Wouldn’t it be better to let him die as an American hero?

Jack begins to dig deeper into the conspiracy, using audio he recorded of the accident and photos by a photographer who happened to be in the same area to reconstruct the sequence. It’s clear that there was no accident. Someone shot out the tire. He tries to submit this evidence to the police, but the detective insists everyone wants to believe it was an accident, no one wants the dirty details.

Paralleling Jack’s unraveling of the conspiracy is the work of Burke (John Lithgow), the man responsible for shooting out the tire who has started a series of killings he plans to build into murdering Sally and tying off the last loose end in his mission. Here, De Palma subverts the slasher/serial killer tropes with killings of characters the audience doesn’t particularly know and without the voyeuristic gaze of the killer.

Instead, it is Jack who is the voyeur. In the scene leading up to the car crash, he records audio of a couple, invading on their privacy and watching them from a distance. Later in the film it’s revealed he used to wire undercover cops and listen in on their conversations. In the final sequence he wires Sally in order to try to protect himself. In these cases De Palma takes the generally negative trait and places it on someone who isn’t predatory, but simply seeking to discover the truth. Sometimes a bit of voyeurism is necessary.

This leads to the scream. When Jack records Sally, he captures audio of her screaming. It’s a scream of terror, a bone-chilling sound. For the film it represents a scream that attempts to get attention, to expose the truth to show with panic the malevolence and evil that others seek to shroud behind a cloak of misguided patriotism.

Instead of using this scream to expose a conspiracy, Jack uses it for something else. Defeated, he uses the scream over a shower scene from the fake slasher movie that opens the film. While in the moment it seems like a sensational way to twist the audience’s heartstrings, it also exposes the film’s biting conclusion: we’d rather use the fright and terror of a scream to entertain us than to awaken us from the slumber induced by the lies we are being fed.