Brian De Palma Michael Sragow - Essay

Michael Sragow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

De Palma makes movies about divided personalities, characters uncertain of their social and psychological identities, torn between impulse and reason. He plays dark games with them among the land mines of our cities, where a rape, a race riot or a revolution could be just around the corner. His material is often Grand Guignol, but the intelligence behind it is as sophisticated as Edgar Allan Poe's.

A daring writer and director, De Palma attacks his controversial themes with new frankness and confidence in Blow Out. This powerful political thriller—raunchy, funny, yet poetic—is the most startlingly fresh film released so far this year. Its vision of a robotized United States, tranquilized by the media and caught up in the escapist politics of "patriotism," registers like a clarion call to the nation: get serious!…

It's unusual for political thrillers to carry a tragic sting, but in Blow Out, the characters' downfalls, particularly Jack's, are determined partly by their personalities. Jack is a victim of his media obsessions—a voyeur of his own life—trying to use technology to beat technology. As the movie progresses, his feelings of impotence tighten around him like a noose…. (p. 38)

Blow Out is a thrillingly complicated film, exact in its elusiveness. The random encounters between characters have been carefully planned; they show us how conspiracies derive from incompetence and accidents as well as deviousness and evil. The movie starts out like a game of "What's wrong with this picture?" and adds another game: "What's wrong with this sound?" Then it dares to ask the most puzzling question of all: "What's wrong with this country?" By using suspense techniques at full tilt, De Palma has managed to turn national torpor into an American moviemaking triumph. (p. 40)

Michael Sragow, "'Blow Out': The Sounds of Violence," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1981; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 351, September 3, 1981, pp. 38, 40.