Criterion Review: BLOW OUT on 4K UHD

Brian De Palma’s well orchestrated thriller gets stellar remaster

Essentially a political thriller, but one infused with that stylistic and narrative edge that can only come from Brian De Palma (Phantom of the Paradise, Snake Eyes, Sisters). Jack (Travolta) is a sound engineer, and while recording clips for a feature one night, observes a car veer off a bridge and plunge into the water. He rescues the young passenger inside, Sally (Nancy Allen), and after taking her to a local hospital, learns that the driver who died was a rising candidate for president. A photographer on the scene shares images with the media paining the incident as an accident, but Jack’s recordings and Sally’s experience suggest something more untoward. Jack’s determination to atone for a mistake in his past leads him to apply his own particular set of skills to piece together the evidence and determine the events that unfolded on that bridge. Doing so plunges them both into a web of lies, corruption, blackmail, and murder, and the looming specter of someone out there trying to conceal the crime and cleanup all the loose ends.

Widely perceived as Brian De Palma’s best film, it’s not hard to see why. Delivering the writer/director’s particular twisted sensibilities, embedded into a story that touches on politics, power, social responsibility, and personal trauma. Weighty fare, explored with an efficiency, focus, and that distinct style and technique you’d attribute to De Palma. A playful slight of hand, masterful neo-noir compositions, alluring shots, wicked edits, and evocative framing. The opening, showcasing a slasher film, is abruptly pulled from beneath us by highlighting the aspect of the film that kicks off the story, and ends it, a scream. In between, the journey of a haunted man, delving deeper into an escalating conspiracy thriller. Born out of an era where issues such as the Vietnam war, JFK assassination, and Watergate, highlighted abuses of power and eroded trust in our government. The reality is, thanks to ongoing corruption and misdeeds, the film has only been emboldened and reinforced in its urgency and impact.

Travolta and Allen are captivating as this pair caught in the middle. Intense pressure and fear driving them together as they seek solace, and a way out. Travolta in particular sells the baggage weighing down Jack, his drive to atone, and his hope that the truth will win out and these bastards won’t get away with it. It makes for a heartbreaking final act, and a truly haunting final scene. Jack punishing himself, immortalizing a failure, leaving us with a haunting feeling of futility, and slipping in a bitter truth into the theater of film-making.

The Package

The 4K presentation from Criterion is simply stunning. A remaster from a 35mm negative, supervised and approved by Brian De Palma himself. Detail is outstanding, particularly notable during the director’s trademark split-diopter shots, close ups of facial features, or the recording equipment so obsessed over by Travolta’s character. Inky blacks, healthy color reproduction/range and deep saturation of images. The final act’s firework’s bathed sequence, with bold colors, and pristine lights and shadows, is as splendid to behold as it is unsettling. There is also a wonderful resolve and representation of grain. Extra features also impress:

  • One 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Interview with director Brian De Palma, conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach: It’s a shame that De Palma has never embraced the commentary track for his releases, but this interview is fair compensation. A nice exchange of ideas and perspectives, and good questioning from Baumbach
  • Interview with actor Nancy Allen: Dives into the did they/didn’t they aspect of the film, and also sheds some light on Allen’s working relationship with (then) husband De Palma
  • Murder à la Mod, a 1967 feature by De Palma: Used in the film as a background feature on the TV, its one of De Palma’s early works and showcases many of the predilections for which he became known for
  • Interview with cameraman Garrett Brown on the Steadicam shots featured in the film within Blow Out: Great technical piece, and highlights the work that went into some of the key shots int he film, notably the opening
  • On-set photographs by Louis Goldman and Trailer:
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Michael Sragow and, for the Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions, Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review of the film: In the liner notes, which also contains details on the films new restoration

The Bottom Line

Blow Out is a masterful feature that lays bare the soul of America, tinged after the political tragedies and scandals of the ’60s and ’70s. The sinister sights and sounds De Palma orchestrate, go down as some of his finest work. Criterion present an impeccable 4K transfer, to showcase the craft behind this political thriller.

Blow Out 4K-UHD is available via Criterion now

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