Though famous for their indelicacy in portraying sex, violence, and chemical intake, Abel Ferrara's films only work because of their surprising subtlety. The writer-director's best works, such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral, match excess with meaning, creating lurid melodramas that also work as morality plays. When Ferrara is in top form, only Martin Scorsese can match his effectiveness in expressing the relationship between old-fashioned Catholic guilt and contemporary moral malaise. But the last few years have not found Ferrara in top form, with some of his less memorable films meeting undignified, direct-to-video fates years after their intended release dates. Released elsewhere in 1997, The Blackout at least improves upon Ferrara's borderline incomprehensible William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel, placing the director in more familiar sin-and-redemption territory. His sinner this time out is a hard-living, well-known film star (Matthew Modine) who, while vacationing in Miami, asks his girlfriend (Béatrice Dalle) to marry him, then flies into a paroxysm of rage when she informs him that she carried through with the abortion he none-too-subtly suggested and subsequently forgot. Meanwhile, Modine begins hanging out with Dennis Hopper, a high-tech sex-club/film-studio owner who claims to be filming an adaptation of Emile Zola's Nana. (Apparently, his interpretation restores all the lesbian sex and lace thongs that Jean Renoir's version omitted.) After a few hard-partying days, the foggy-headed Modine blacks out, bottoms out, cleans up, and sets up house with Claudia Schiffer. Violent dreams continue to haunt him, however, as does the small matter of Dalle's unexplained disappearance. "I don't even know the difference between life and acting anymore. It's all started to blur," Modine mumbles at one point. The line typifies The Blackout's willingness to explain itself, which it does, over and over, as it drags to its conclusion. Modine gives a memorable performance, there's an interesting if muddled bit of commentary about mixed media, and the film has its isolated powerful moments, as every Ferrara movie does. But here, they remain far too isolated.