Film review: Blow (2001) by Ted Demme
Blow (2001) is a biographical motion picture about the notorious American cocaine smuggler George Jung. The movie is an adaptation from the book Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All authored by Bruce Porter in 1993. The writing team of David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes has handled the screenplay for the film. The story combines interesting events from the lives of most wanted drug traders of recent times including George Jung, Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar, etc. The influential Medellin Cartel’s fluctuating fortunes were also included in the story. This essay will analyze the following elements of the film: Genre, Mise En Scene, cinematography and shot selection.
The plot has all the ingredients typical of underworld films – violence, sex, suspense, sudden twists of fortunes, etc. Johnny Depp plays the young George Jung, who begins life in Weymouh Massachusetts. His childhood is chaotic due to the financial difficulty and eventual bankruptcy of his father Fred (played by Ray Liotta) by the time George was barely ten. But young George endures through this chaos and grows into a confident young man. The action heats up as George and his accomplices in crime Tuna
The initial success of his drug trading venture encourages George to expand the scale and breadth of his operations. This takes him on many dangerous yet cinematically interesting adventures to Mexico and other destinations. These journeys link up his identity to the Medellin cartel and other prominent figures of Central American drug trade. While his illegal activities are shooting off this trajectory, his personal life shows a contrast. For someone who is so cut-throat and matter-of-fact in his business dealings, George is actually a touchy and sentimental person. This is particularly true with respect to his relationship with this father, mother and wife. The appeal of this biopic largely emerges from this contrasting juxtaposition of George Jung’s two-faceted personality.
Coming now to aspects of film language, the film can be classified as underworld biopic, with its regular stylistic elements put in place. There are clear resemblances to such mafia-based movies as Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. There is even an odd tinge of The Godfather. The swift and succinct camerawork by Ellen Kuras complements this genre very well. There is also a sense of rhythm witnessed in both the narrative and cinematography, as scenes move from action to suspense to sentimental.
The Mise En Scene throughout the film is handled in such a deft manner that it reflects the genre. For example, the high-risk world of illegal drug trade is depicted with its usual accompaniments of back-streets, late nights and poor neighborhoods. Even in the first scene that introduces George, the room he enters is shown with minimal furnishing and decor, with only the meat freezer curtains visible in the background. Here, cinematography substitutes for dialogue in conveying to the audience the shady, risky existence of the character in the frame. The employment of documentary style narration at select places makes those scenes look more credible.
The use of hard lighting is another key feature of several scenes in the film. In terms of technique, hard lighting is produced by a small light source stationed quite close to the subject and creates long/deep shadows revealing surface imperfections of actors and other objects in the set. Aesthetics is not the emphasis under the hard lighting technique, and hence actors on scene appear visually ordinary and unflattering in certain shots. The most prominent example of hard lighting in Blow is when toward the end of the film George is put in prison for the final time. Here, he is shown to be regretful of disappointing his daughter. The shot showing him conversing with a police officer carries an apt lighting technique, where the light reflecting off George is shown to be harsh on his skin. It also brightens some areas of his face and enhances his complexion. Through this delicate cinematographic work, the viewer learns that the character in frame is a hurt and heartbroken man. The utter sense of failure (to keep up the promise to his daughter) on his part is writ large by the camera and lighting work. Simultaneously, the cinematography of the scene also brings out the mental and physical maturing of George as it exposes the wrinkles and sags of his worn out face.
The very first scene of the film shows a group of men, women and children preparing consumable cocaine from a farm. The song ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking’ by Rolling Stones now plays in the background, which provides the Hippies cultural context for cocaine boom in America. In other words, the song has strong associations with the cultural upheavals occurring in America when George Jung’s business began to prosper. The scene then breaks into a shot of George sitting and talking with friends about his business. This shot is constructed in such a way that it focuses on George at mid-distance for about 30 seconds, indicating that the man in picture is the subject of this biopic. So what the director has achieved is to communicate a key fact to the audience through merely visual means. At this point, a voiceover appears (which continues through the film), which starts to narrate the story of George from his early years. This opening sequence illustrates the concise editing, shot creation and direction. The use of Rolling Stones number and the employment of voiceover device for flashback work perfectly for the sequence. On the other hand, a linear approach to narration would not have been as effective. Hence the director Ted Demme will have to be lauded for his shot construction skills. He was ably assisted by cinematographer Ellen Kuras.
In conclusion, Blow is a wonderful movie in terms of quality of cinematography as well as attention to detail evident in the study of mise en scene. The direction, cinematography and editing will all have to be given due praise. What is lacking though is a tight screenplay and what is unnecessary is the tendency to make the narrative too sentimental. In other words, while Blow is technically very excellent, its plot and content come across as deficient. One could give some leeway in evaluating these parameters considering that this is a biopic. Overall, the film is satisfactory on several counts and succeeds in bringing forth the essence of George Jung’s character to the audience.
‘Blow’, Directed by Ted Demme, Produced by Denis Leary, Joel Stillerman and Ted Demme, Distributed by New Line Cinema, Released in 2001.