Blow Out, and Why Movies Need Shock Endings

Brian De Palma's '80s thriller Blow Out contains one of the era’s great shock endings. It shows why we need movies that challenge us...

This article contains spoilers for the 1981 film, Blow Out.

It all begins with a scream. Jack (John Travolta) is a sound technician working on a tawdry, low-budget slasher movie where the usual gaggle of photogenic teenagers gets hacked up by a knife-wielding maniac. The big problem for Jack is, the director doesn’t find the strangled, squeaky cry of the killer’s latest victim convincing enough. Jack and the director sit in the editing bay, glumly reviewing the footage, listening to the co-ed’s keening wail over and over again. Nope: it simply doesn’t work.

Jack’s quest to find a truthful-sounding, blood-curdling scream for the B-slasher provides the jumping-off point for Blow Out, director Brian De Palma’s mind-melting thriller about political conspiracy and the power of the filmmaking medium. It also has what might be one of the most horrifying shock endings in ’80s movies. I don’t mean horrifying in the sense of outright gore and violence, though Blow Out has more than a bit of that, as you’d expect from De Palma. No, Blow Outs ending is horrifying in a psychological sense that hits you right between the ears; it’s the kind of conclusion that actively defies you not to sit bolt upright in your seat and say (or at least think):

“You can’t end a thriller like that. Can you?”

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Yet as the credits roll, Blow Out leaves you to ponder what’s just happened. Jack’s final actions in the movie could be described as utter callousness, or more likely, the work of a man driven out of his mind by recent events and punishing himself by listening to the same piercing sound, over and over. The final scene could also be taken as an elaborate and incredibly twisted joke on the part of De Palma; a punch line to a gag which began with that first scream in Blow Out’s opening reel and paid off in its last. It says a great deal about the dark humor in so many of De Palma’s films that this latter reading is a remotely plausible one. 

It was through thinking about my initial, knee-jerk reaction to Blow Out that I realized how carefully crafted and outright brilliant De Palma’s film is. I’d seen the movie before as a teenager, but I’d failed to understand the true gravity of that ending I’ve been talking about for two or three paragraphs already. Watching it again about 20 years later, I finally felt the weight and heft of Blow Outs downbeat climax, its political cynicism, and the totality of Jack’s failure in achieving the goals laid out for him as the film’s protagonist.

De Palma didn’t make matters easy for himself by giving Blow Out such a bleak conclusion (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed). When the film came out in 1981, audiences appeared to vote with their wallets, with the warm recommendations from critics falling largely on deaf ears. Yet De Palma remained true to the movie he wanted to make; in the final analysis, Blow Out’s conclusion is as vital to its construction as the desolate resolution of David Fincher’s Seven.

In fact, there’s another potential reading of Blow Out that its director may or may not have consciously placed there for us: the movie is a master class in how to craft the perfect shock ending. 

Like so many of De Palma’s films, Blow Out freely references other movies. Its title and subject matter take considerable inspiration from Antonioni’s ’60s film Blow Up, about a photographer who may or may not have inadvertently captured a murder on film. In Blow Out, Travolta’s Jack may or may not have caught an assassination of a presidential candidate on his sound equipment – a clear nod to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid classic, The Conversation.

When the authorities try to cover up the incident, which involves a car crash on a benighted bridge and a sound which Jack suspects is a gunshot, Jack (a former cop) turns detective. He listens to his recording over and over again, listening to the shriek of tyres and what is surely the blast of a rifle ringing out just a split-second before the crash. When stills from a Zapruder-like piece of amateur video appear in a magazine, Jack ingeniously cuts them up, splices them back into a piece of film and lays his own sound recording over the top – all the better to ascertain the precise timing and location of the suspected gunshot.

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It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking in its concept alone; a means of making detective work cinematic and visually engrossing. The filmmaking metaphor is also easy to see: Jack turns from schlubby sound technician to film director – he’s finding the story he needs to tell (that is, to expose a hushed-up murder) by splicing together a patchwork of images and sound. Jack becomes obsessed with his mission, and watching him work becomes intoxicating by itself.

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As well as placing the craft of filmmaking on the screen, Blow Out also comments on what makes a flat and tedious genre movie. It’s no accident that Blow Out begins with a film within a film: the slasher flick with the unconvincing scream in it. Full of cool, smooth camera moves that link it not only to Italy’s giallo output but also De Palma’s own carefully orchestrated movie-making, the faux film at the start is notable for having almost no power at all beyond the tawdry appeal of its voyeurism. The on-screen director wrongly assumes the lack of impact lies in the teen’s unconvincing scream; rather, it’s because the characters are meaningless archetypes, intentionally left unshaded by De Palma. 

De Palma then contrasts the flatness of the faux film by introducing a small collection of characters we can actually care about. Travolta is on career-best form as Jack, a disillusioned man who finds a cause again through his embroilment in a conspiracy. But Nancy Allen, who plays Sally, a make-up seller also caught up in the plot, is equally good. At first discomfitingly close to the gum-chewing airhead character type we thankfully see less and less of in movies nowadays, Sally is gradually revealed to be far more nuanced and three-dimensional. She has ambitions, dreams, regrets, and murky connections that are only gradually revealed.

“Here,” De Palma seems to be saying through Blow Out, “This is how you stage an effective shocker. It’s not just about the fancy camera tricks. It’s about empathy.”

Blow Out’s uncompromising conclusion also points to a level of directorial control we don’t see too often in the mainstream filmmaking of the 21st century. It’s worth remembering that Blow Out was very much a mainstream film in terms of its budget; at an estimated $18 million, its investment equalled Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the most lucrative film of 1981. Outside the biggest names currently working in movies – David Fincher or Christopher Nolan, to throw out two names – it’s difficult to imagine many current filmmakers being given the latitude to make a thriller like Blow Out today. 

We’ve recently been reminded of the kinds of limits filmmakers can have imposed on them from outside forces. As well as studio bosses, producers and executives, we’re also beginning to see the involvement of audiences in the decision-making process. The clamor from director Zack Snyder and his producer-partner Deborah to reassure comic book movie fans that Justice League won’t be as brutal and grim as Batman v Superman is a recent example of how audience feedback can affect the trajectory of what we see on the silver screen. The online rage aimed at this summer’s all-female Ghostbusters movie is an example of what can happen when fans fail to see their desires or expectations reflected in a movie with familiar branding.

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De Palma had no such burden on him when he made Blow Out, not least because Blow Out wasn’t a sequel or a reboot of a popular movie. But Blow Out was billed as a mainstream thriller, released as it was in the July of 1981, and De Palma must have known that what he was about to lay on an unsuspecting summer audience. As the screen faded to black in those first screenings, I can’t help wondering whether viewers had a similar knee-jerk reaction as I did 35 years later: “You can’t end a thriller like that. Can you?”

Whether they did or not, the answer’s very simple: of course he can. The film isn’t mine; it’s De Palma’s. It’s a storyteller’s job to create emotionally resonant responses, not necessarily to serve up neat, audience-pleasing conclusions – good for business though they sometimes are. Films like Blow Out can leave us reeling at what we’ve just seen. That’s not just something we should just encourage in filmmaking, but also cherish.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.