Is there a bigger WTF movie in existence than Scarface? Is there a movie that makes you clutch your forehead like that audience in The Producers and wonder aloud just what these people were thinking? That it was made at all is some kind of mutant miracle. That it somehow achieved cult classic status – beloved (among others) by the very criminals it ostensibly decried – defies all notions of a just and loving universe. You can’t hate it, for who could be ill-disposed towards such a gonzo act of self-immolation? But looking at it again, one is struck dumb with wonder. What in the name of all things holy did Brian De Palma do?!
De Palma is, of course, the mad genius without whom this crazed act of cinema would not be possible. He sought to update the classic gangster film of the 1930s with a dash of 80s excess. And by “dash” I mean, “mountain of coke” levels as befits his off-the-hook lead: Al Pacino, an actor not generally given to understatement and whose career at this stage had stalled to the point that he was willing to do anything onscreen if it meant earning our attention. Armed with a script by certified lunatic Oliver Stone, he set out to destroy everything that is good and decent about the medium, and in the process created some kind of train-wreck masterpiece: a three-hour (JESUSGODTHREEFUCKINGHOURS) epic of criminal absurdity that may never be equaled.
From the beginning, both actor and director make it clear that they are taking no prisoners. No concept is ridiculous enough to be abandoned, no piece of scenery is left unchewed. Scarface features its share of talented performers – including Michelle Pfieffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and a pre-Amadeus F. Murray Abraham – who can only trail behind Hurricane Pacino as he and De Palma lay waste to everything in their path.
They chart the rise and fall of Cuban crime lord Tony Montana (Pacino) as he hops off the boat in 1980 and promptly chainsaws his way to the top of the Miami underworld. (I’m not speaking figuratively here.) Armed with a ruthless survivor’s instincts, but undone by lust/jealousy for his sweet baby sister (Mastrantonio), Montana shatters everyone in his path before turning on himself in an orgy of self-destruction.
We watch it knowing where the beats will fall, but not how De Palma’s go-for-broke sleaze would coat everything in hypnotic overkill. Why just execute a man when you can chuck him out of a helicopter? Why snort a little blow when you can bury your face in it like a cream pie? There’s no pretense of plausibility here; no notion of ratcheting this back in the hopes of finding something resembling a consensual reality. It’s a cautionary fairy tale that embodies the very qualities it hopes to decry, a glorification of the gangster lifestyle sheathed in sinners-never-prosper moralizing. The weight of its own hypocrisy would be enough to crush the Brooklyn Bridge, even if we don’t factor in elements like the buckets of gore or Pacino’s faux Cuban accent (which apparently broke loose from its handlers and trampled several onlookers to death before it could be contained). And yet it never acknowledges its own fatal contradictions. It really doesn’t seem to care.
That, in the end, is its magic bullet. By ignoring its massive, toxic, nuclear-fallout shortcomings, it manages to find its way to the hallowed status of camp classic. There is no lesson to be learned here, not in any way that honest men can stomach. It brings nothing new to the gangster genre, its performers have all delivered stronger performances elsewhere (much stronger in a lot of cases), and the drama is so ludicrously trite that to even attempt a serious reading means flirting with madness. I'm not sure the film's passel of would-be gangster fans are in on the joke, but the rest of us see it writ in letters forty feet high.
Can we include De Palma in our ranks? I'm inclined to say yes, though the truth is, it really doesn't matter. He knows the power of going for broke -- good or bad, his movies never do otherwise -- and Scarface stands as the unquestioned king of his signature filmmaking style. Masterpiece or nuclear bomb: the distinctions blur. Both have the ability to sear themselves into our retinas for years after we see them. For Scarface, that's the sole and only purpose of the exercise. Love it, condemn it, run screaming in unabated horror from it. The only thing that matters is that you remember it; an attitude that fits its unhinged protagonist like a glove.