December 4, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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If I could use one word to describe Brian De Palma’s Scarface, it’d be hardcore. Gritty and raw, the film, just like it’s main character, is unabashedly blunt in all respects. Set in garish South Florida in the early ’80s, Scarface is an unusual epic, chronicling the rise and fall of drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino). Our first meeting with Montana, a Cuban ex-con, coincides with his first experience of America, and the rest of the film involves his life in his new surroundings. Montana’s life reads like a twisted version of the typical American Dream. Our anti-hero finds no future in honest work and soon turns to a life of crime centered on trafficking drugs from South America. Montana quickly ascends the ladder of success thanks to his direct approach and bravado, but like all epics, Scarface encompasses every part of Montana’s story — even his eventual fall from power.

De Palma’s movie is flamboyant at times and often borders on excessive, but this approach works well with his subject matter. The flashy lights and blindingly glitzy nightlife are merely physical manifestations of Montana’s implied obsession with material possessions. Money, power, and women are all top priorities in Montana’s life and De Palma artfully works these continuous themes into every scene either explicitly or with scenery. Ostentatious to the extreme, the film makes a powerful statement because it remains brutally honest. Tough and realistic from beginning until end, Scarface offers no excuses.

Pacino plays Montana with a violent edge that is animalistic at times, a shocking contrast to his smooth, low-key Michael Corleone. Demonstrative of his ability to portray memorable characters, Pacino’s Montana is a crass and demanding figure who monopolizes the entire film with his over-the-top charisma. We can’t stop watching Pacino simply because he does not want us to stop. The dominating control he exerts reverberates throughout his portrayal of Montana.

Other than its central figure, Scarface supplies a supporting cast to flesh out Montana’s life. There is Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), unobtainable and beautiful, both qualities which make her that much more desirable to Montana. Pfeiffer’s junkie ice queen embodies a typical inhabitant of the Florida drug traffic scene, while her biting snobbery and detached apathy reflect the price of living so empty a life.

There’s also Montana’s best friend Manolo Ray (Steven Bauer) and Montana’s sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), two characters that draw out Montana’s humanity. De Palma’s film is powerful because, like Montana, it often refuses to take the easy way out. Montana is not a one-dimensional embodiment of the bad guy, although he proudly proclaims himself to be one, but neither is he deserving of forgiveness. This is a man whose personal ethics, which often sidestep societal ethics, remain constant and who works hard for success, an anti-hero of the people.

Supplementing the storyline is a script by Oliver Stone full of quotable lines and Montana-esque wisdom. “All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one,” declares Montana in one scene, and we watch as the rest of the film seems to prove this point. Stone’s script characterizes Montana as harshly direct, a man not dependent on subtlety, who operates within a world of intrigue and double crosses.

Full of blatant foreshadowing, like lessons from a seasoned criminal to Montana that he should never “get high off [his] own supply,” Scarface is not subtle about Montana’s eventual ruin. The fact that despite knowing of this inevitable end audiences remain entranced by the storyline demonstrates Scarface’s power as a timeless classic. De Palma’s film not only revealed an aspect of American success that had previously remained untouched but also created a memorable character for future generations. Tony Montana will remain a quotable persona for all time not because he was admirable, but because he was unique.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang