I hate Scarface. I find it an ugly, ugly film about ugly, ugly people. I hate the fact that a cult seems to have risen up around it that states that everything that I deplore about the film and about the lives of the people in it is somehow worthy of applause. That a life based upon the life of the unrepentant, misogynistic, racist little shit at the centre of the film is somehow worthy. I find the violence stomach churning, often because it’s so excessive that it again has gone towards creating the cult that surrounds the film. Despite all of this it’s a film that I return to again and again because it’s probably one of the most interesting films from that period. Scarface may not be a pleasant film to watch, but in the same way as we find ourselves drawn to looking at the car crash at the side of the road it draws us in.
Written by a then on form Oliver Stone, and directed as if it was the last film he’d ever get the chance to do another film by Brian DePalma, Scarface probably has more to say about the decade it was made in than many other more worthy films. There’s the dissection of corporate culture (and drugs are shown to be as corporate a culture as the stock market) that Stone would return to with Wall Street, along with the excessive comment on screen violence of his later Natural Born Killers (a film that I still have a lot of time for), with more directness than either of them. It deals with issues of race and the American dream far better than any of the pro-Reagan films of the time, whilst still not either condoning nor praising the administration. DePalma still got the chance to shoot the film the way he wanted before the studios took him and tried to create a mainstream audience for his excess (I maintain he was better when he was trying to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock than when he was playing it straight), and the over the top direction is perfectly in keeping with a story as excessive as this. At the time the film was called a remake, these days it would be a bold re-imagining.
A unique aspect of the film is that there isn’t a single likeable character that we’re introduced to (the journalist doesn’t count, we never meet him as a character, but that’s your lot). A film has to work pretty hard to make l Pacino and Michelle Pfieffer unattractive, but somehow this film manages to wring every last drop of venom from them and the rest of the cast. No matter how (physically) attractive they attempt to make themselves (and this is a film as much about the trappings of wealth as it is the acquisition of it) their inherent inner ugliness is always there on the surface. It isn’t even the case that they’re all falling into the “Magnificent Bastard” territory, they’re just repulsive examples of humanity and unworthy of our sympathy.
Pacino grabs the role for all its worth, in the process creating the persona that he would almost become a pastiche of in the nineties as the roles became less and less interesting. It’s a hugely physical role, requiring him to use his entire body to portray the fact that he’s a lunatic, completely unaware of social norms (try not to cringe during the restaurant scene with Pfieffer, you won’t manage it) even when they’re utterly taboo (incest). Rarely is he shown not sweating, as if even his bodies trying to expel his personality as well, it’s an utterly vanity free portrayal of a man with no redeeming features (it’s hard to argue that his unwillingness to kill a child alongside the journalist is positive given his willingness to carry out nearly every other atrocity). Every line is an expletive because he doesn’t know how to speak without spewing out hatred. Tony Montanna is fuelled not by a desire to be rich, but a hatred of everyone else who he thinks is better than him.
The film grabs every excess of the time and milks it as well. The clothing is picked merely as an indicator of wealth rather than style (not that the eighties were a stylistic highpoint), even the buildings are chosen for the ostentatious nature rather than any other reason. DePalma and Co. even acknowledge this, at the height of his powers Montanna views his domain and an airship looms into view displaying “The world is yours” as a valediction of everything he has done to reach that point. It’s one of those crass motivational posters on a massive scale (this is a film where everything is on a massive scale) and the irony is that subsequent generations have embraced the film because of this view. The truth is that the world is largely oblivious to him and come the end he won’t even be remembered. Stone’s script is sharp enough to realise that everything has a price and Montanna sealed his fate the moment he murdered a man in the camps at the beginning. The violence is excessive throughout because violence is an excess, it’s not a pretty thing, nor a necessary thing, but something that exists and should appal us. Scarface doesn’t attempt to gentrify it by cutting away from it at the worst moment, it instead puts it in the centre of the screen where we can’t look away.
In the end, the things I hate about the film are the things that make it a success. It’s not a film we’re supposed to like, but that isn’t to say it isn’t an excellent film. Scarface should be applauded for being willing to be so tasteless that it offensive, it’s just unfortunate that the message of the film seems to have been lost to a generation that, like Tony Montanna, have been fooled into thinking that “The world is yours”.