“Losing at the game of life”
I am very fond of early Brian De Palma—those hypnotic and seductive genre films with a touch of sleaze—but I had been avoiding Scarface because the gangster genre has never been very compelling to me. Its characteristic machismo and decadence are more alienating than endearing. Throughout the 70s, De Palma’s films were very sensual—a saturated and hazy look that coated the violence and depravity of the action in a glaze of nostalgia. But the cinematography of Scarface seemed, at first, flat and unmemorable. It took a while for the film to work any sort of magic on me. It did eventually, and I realized that the graceful nostalgia of Carrie or Obsession would have been inappropriate. This tale is harsh and gritty. There is an underlying sadness too that is betrayed early on by Giorgio Moroder‘s haunting score.
For the first third of Scarface, I watched unimpressed as Tony Montana (Al Pacino) struts around letting everyone know that he won’t be told what to do. He’s his own man, and all he’s got is his word and his balls and he doesn’t break them for nobody. Ugh, shut up already. Tony Montana sees himself as a noble crusader. He believes he stands for something, but the truth is he is just a thug, and the worst kind of thug—one who doesn’t even understand his place. A defining moment for Tony Montana, and one in which I began to appreciate the strength of his story, is his moral decision to botch the assassination of a journalist. He had no qualms with killing any number of other men to further his own career, and he dominates and humiliates his sister without hesitation, but because an innocent wife and children would also be victimized by this assassination, he holds his ground and kills one of the assassins instead; thereby terminating his partnership with a fellow drug lord and securing his own deadly fate.
This decision is an important one. He is backing his claim that he is his own boss (even at the sake of his own life). More importantly, he believes he is doing the right thing. However, he cannot stake a claim to any moral high ground. His previous behavior illustrates his willingness to kill for gain. The line he draws in the sand here—with the wife and kids—is arbitrary. He is not being paid for his moral decisions. He is a thug. If he is to survive as a thug, he must humble himself to accept certain realities of the lifestyle. People are going to die, and he will not always be the one to choose who or when.
Tony Montana is ruthless and ambitious; these are the qualities that brought him such quick success. However, he is also arrogant, and that is what cut him down just as quickly. After the botched assassination, things fall apart for Tony very quickly. It is inevitable that the walls of a society will crumble when people stop making the sacrifices required of them to maintain an orderly and protective structure. We must give something of value, something of ourselves that we hold dear, in order to ensure our harmonious relationship with the world-at-large.
Tony wanted the world-at-large to be benevolent towards him. As his lavish mansion full of luxuries illustrates, he sacrificed much time and energy to put his own little society in place. And, in keeping with the over-the-top nature of Tony’s existence, an iconic globe in the main hall of his mansion reads: “The World is Yours.” But when it came time to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure his continued existence, he could not part with the one thing he held most dear—control.
The problem with this kind of arrogance—and to a larger extent, rationality and materialism—is that we cannot possibly have everything and know everything. The world is a vast causal network that cannot be encapsulated by the scope of our perspective and understanding. Despite the terrifying complexity, we must find some way to exist, to walk out our front door every morning and take our chances. How? We frame everything we encounter as tools or obstacles and that helps us make sense of reality. However, if we want our survival to be long-term, we need to constantly re-frame our perspective and re-define the phenomena we encounter. In other words, we need to learn.
Tony Montana was good at winning games, but in always having to win, he lost The Game. What he never learned is that, rather than always winning each and every game, it is important how you play the game. By playing the game properly, people enjoy playing with you, and you are invited to play more games. It is better to always be invited to play games than to always win them. Tony could not lose, ever. And if you can never lose, people will stop playing with you. And in any sort of organized crime, if the players no longer want to play with you, you die.
For the first half of the film I fixated on the fact that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like the greedy drug lords. I didn’t like his cocaine-addicted and morose wife Elvira. I didn’t even like his sister Gina (although I’ve yet to discern precisely why). Though, when his life began to crumble, when the fragile nature of his material success became clear, something deep in my soul responded. My favourite moment in the film is the scenery-chewing restaurant scene where Elvira points of the shallowness of the life he has built and leaves him. Tony condemns the high-society clientele who are so appalled by him. They need him, he says, to be the bad guy, to openly display the brutality and greed they yearn for but are too timid to acknowledge. His speech is shameless grandstanding, but not entirely without truth. In that moment, I realized that I do need Tony Montana. There is something seductive about his decadence and recklessness, and it is instructive to mediate on his lifestyle.
The rise and fall of Tony Montana serves as a multi-layered metaphor that describes both cocaine addition and the dark lie lurking in the American Dream. But deeper than this, it is a potent illustration of the dangers of arrogance. Yes, you can try to build a life with money and power, and dismiss the need for companionship and love, but it is not a good long-term strategy. If you haven’t truly allowed yourself to be vulnerable, if you haven’t made room for love, then there will be nothing worth protecting in your mansion. You can fire as many bullets as you want, but there will always be more bullets out there than there are in your own gun. It is well worth your while to invest in something worth protecting before you invest in the tools of protection.
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Oliver Stone
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer