Scarface & The Constraints of Moral Narrative

Scarface is an uneasy movie, not because of gore, but because it refuses to play by the rules. This is a film about a blunt, crass thug who wants to own the world. He betrays his roots to achieve this, only to find himself shunned in the canopy. That synopsis practically screams ‘inbound moral lesson!’ making Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) downfall into something inevitably exemplary. However this is not a character content to simply break societal rules. The rebellion of Tony Montana carries him far beyond his fictional world, into a battle against the strictures of moral narrative.

In the sermon of Tony Montana, the rules are straightforward. Montana is supposed to be irredeemably evil, as we see when he kills for pleasure. He is supposed to betray his way to the top, obtaining power illegitimately in order to justify its later loss. He is supposed to derive no pleasure from his wages of sin, and eventually he is supposed to be brought to justice. Those should be the rules, but to Tony Montana, they are at most guidelines.

Montana certainly enjoys the murder that acts as his golden ticket into organised crime, but the reason for his pleasure is that his victim is a Communist. Perhaps his joy remains crass, but a ferocious hatred of communism in Reagan’s America is hardly beyond the pale. Montana does eventually supplant his boss, but, he is not the betrayer. His boss betrays him, so Montana’s power grab seems more sensible than malicious. Montana ends up taking little pleasure from his wealth, but, that is more due to him treating Elvira Hancock (Michelle Ffeiffer) as a status symbol rather than a person. Her concentrated misery vampirically drains the joy from his luxury, providing more of a lesson on the dangers of sexism than the dangers of greed. Finally, Montana does eventually meet his end, but, he does so at the hands of a fellow criminal (hardly the embodiment of justice) and as the direct result of what is his only moral action. The life of Tony Montana fights tooth and nail against simplistic characterisation.

The most vicious blow of this battle lands in the midst of a speech. Surrounded by wealthy WASP-types at a fancy restaurant, a drunken Tony manages to, at once, be a complete social embarrassment and wield a hammer of social critique. Stumbling, swaying and brimming with rage, Montana faces down the concentrated bourgeois ‘well-I-never’-ness and tells them the truth: that they (we) need him, because without such clear evil to eclipse its own flaws, polite society would itself be judged and found extremely wanting. Pacino’s delivery is an expression of pure rhetorical force, despite the halting speaking-pace of a drunk amazed at his own coherency. It is a blunt and vicious attack, a dart shot into the oh-so-pious eyes of an audience hundreds of years old. It’s as much of a shock as turning the page of a pamphlet to find only the words ‘FUCK YOU’ beyond.

Revolt is central to Scarface, because no-one could want freedom more than Tony Montana. All his wealth is but a means to this end. Montana is a very simple man. He looks upon 80s America, and he deduces that money is power. With this power, he plans to be free, in the sense that there will be nothing to restrain his actions. It seems like a neat plan, and indeed, it is too neat. Montana believes that money is power. It is, but it is not power’s sole component, and Montana has no refinement or connections to complement his wealth. Furthermore, as Montana experiences, the having and holding of power does not free one from constraint. Indeed clinging to power requires compromise, and compromise is anathema to Tony Montana. So dear are his principles to him that with one gunshot he sacrifices his security for them, and puts his boot through the sermon’s walls.

Tony Montana is not a good man. He is a self-aware bad guy, violent, crude, untrusting and insane. Yet, for the whole of his life, he is a man who never sacrifices his self for any reward. Used to having a clearer line drawn between good and bad, it was unsettling for me to see such a praise-inspiring trait drive a man that despicable. Unsettling, and tremendously exciting.

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