Life and Debt
Matt Zoller Seitz on Carlito’s Way

Everything about Carlito’s Way (1993) is improbable, starting with the fact that it’s a masterpiece. On paper, it sounds like a glossy Nineties Hollywood version of a cheapo B-picture that, 50 years earlier, would have been labeled “a programmer,” and for that reason, its initial reviews tended to be negative or somewhat dismissively positive (variations on “You’ve seen it all before, but it’s still fun”). My own Dallas Observer review—written by a young man who had a lot more living to do—hewed to this superficial reading; thirteen years and many viewings later, it’s high on the list of verdicts I wish I could take back. (The older you get, the wiser, it seems.) Sure enough, though—as invariably happens with Brian De Palma’s movies—audiences grew to admire and ultimately adore Carlito’s Way. They looked past the film’s surfaces and got lost in its depths; within seven years of its release, Cahiers du Cinema named it the best film of the Nineties.

There’s no denying that the story is primordially familiar: Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), a notorious heroin dealer sprung from prison on a technicality, re-enters society determined to build a new, law-abiding identity with his girlfriend but gets pulled back into street life and pays the ultimate price. Yet Carlito’s Way is complex, resilient, and uncannily moving. Its power originates not just in director De Palma’s command of technique—a given, even in his films that don’t work—but in his determination to take his hero at his word and demand that audiences do the same. It treats cliches not as storytelling shortcuts, but as metaphors for personal struggle.

The film’s intent announces itself in its bracketing scenes, which shows his ruthless young rival, Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), assassinating him on a train platform— mere seconds, we later learn, before he can escape to the tropics with his pregnant girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). By showing us exactly how and when Carlito died, and giving us a lingering three-quarters view of Benny’s face so we know who killed him, then segueing into the hero’s ruminative, at times bemused, deathbed narration, which will continue for two-plus hours, De Palma clarifies the film’s intent: its primary action is internal, psychological. The opening tells us, definitively, that this movie is not about what happens to Carlito, but what happens within Carlito.

This description makes the film sound like a tragedy (De Palma’s specialty). But it doesn’t play that way. For a director who specializes in operatic portraits of impotence, violation, and dashed dreams, Carlito’s Way is radically optimistic—as foursquare and impassioned as its closing song, Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.” With the possible exception of Mission to Mars (De Palma’s own E.T.), no other De Palma film is so unapologetically bullish on free will—on peoples’ capacity to alter, or at least redirect, their supposed destiny and even remake their personalities from the ground up. As adapted by screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) from two novels by Edwin Torres, Carlito’s Way is—no kidding—a story of spiritual rebirth: a mythic western in Seventies crime thriller drag about a man who realizes, deep into his forties, that the thug life he’d killed to create is in fact an imitation of life—not just immoral and shallow, but silly and boring.

In a sinuous slow-motion crane shot that literalizes the convulsions of a soul in flux, Carlito’s essence seems to rise above his body on the train platform. The “Way” of the title refers not simply to Carlito’s personality or code, but the meandering path he takes en route to redemption at death’s door. As the paramedics wheel Carlito towards The End, he looks back at the last few months of his life, revisits his most important decisions, considers the personality traits that led him to make those decisions, and dies knowing more about himself than when he set foot on that platform. Sweetest of all, he dies knowing that while he was not able to outrun his past, he did help Gail—a wannabe ballerina turned stripper who’d given up hope of real happiness—escape hers. He took responsibility for the child he sired with her—even handing her the cash he’d planned to use to start a rental car business on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. As always, he keeps his word—this time with good rather than ill results—and his final flicker of a smile tells us that he’s dying satisfied, because he knows he’s become a better man.

If De Palma didn’t buy into this worldview—if his philosophical alliance with Koepp’s script wasn’t confirmed in every frame and refracted in Pacino’s capital-R romantic performance—the entire film would feel as abstract and forced, even phony, as the syrup-drenched scenes with Eliot Ness’s family in The Untouchables. When Carlito declares in his introductory courtroom scene that he’s a new man—released from the cage of his old preconceptions as suddenly and decisively as his best friend, sleazy lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), sprung him from prison—the grin on his face and the bounce in his step tells us that he means it, and we have to take him at his word. Carlito insists, telling the doubting appeals court judge, “I am through walking on the wild side,” then adding, “I know you heard this rap before. Your honor—I mean it.”

De Palma means it, too. But he, Koepp, and Pacino don’t make the mistake of sanctifying Carlito, turning him into a good man dragged down by forces larger than himself. Throughout, the film reminds us that Carlito’s fall is the result of making the wrong choices for the right reasons. In nearly every scene, Carlito is asked to choose between loyalty to important people from his past and fidelity to his new vision of himself; he tries to negotiate between the two, but in the end, his code of honor wins out. When a drug dealer with whom he had an alliance asks him to accompany a neophyte courier on a delivery run, Carlito agrees, even though he’s just gotten out of prison and wants to keep his nose clean. The courier, a clueless kid starstruck by Carlito’s street legend, asks him to accompany him inside the bar where the deal’s going down and pretend to be his muscle, and Carlito—perhaps remembering what it felt like to be in the courier’s shoes—reluctantly agrees. These two decisions—both originating in Carlito’s code of honor and sense of obligation—set the plot’s razor-toothed gears in motion. Carlito senses that the courier is being set up for robbery and murder and then tries and fails to stop it (though he does kill the killers and take the cash to help start his rental-car nest egg).

Around the same time, Dave, who’s bought into a nightclub, asks Carlito to manage the place, keep thug regulars in line and prevent the current boss, a grinning toad who’s in debt to the mob, from skimming the till. “You’ve done enough for me already, Dave,” Carlito says—a double-edged line that sounds complimentary but hints that the reformed, rational Carlito wishes he could distance himself from his skeezy trickster pal. But ultimately Carlito relents, with a statement that confirms his debt of gratitude to Dave and literalizes the idea that Carlito is, in some sense, born again: “I was dead, I was buried. I was under the ground. You dug me up.”

The specter of debt—monetary and personal—hovers over most of the film’s characters and dictates every plot twist. Even Carlito’s relationship with Gail is colored by a sense of debt. He snuffed their relationship before he went to prison—a move he defines as chivalrous, but which still broke her heart. He seeks her out because she represents a better self he needs to discover (it makes sense that she’s the only character who calls him “Charlie”; it ties into his social striving impulses and literalizes the idea that when he’s with her, he feels like a different person). But more than that, he just flat-out loves her. Spying on her ballet class from an adjacent rooftop—a scene that visually echoes Rear Window and Body Double, but trades menace for helpless romantic longing—Carlito is moonstruck. Keeping the rain off his head with a trash can lid like a knight using his shield as an umbrella, he just watches her dance; De Palma zooms closer to him and closer to her, literally removing the distance between Carlito’s memory of Gail and Gail herself. (While dancing, Gail incidentally touches the heel of her hand to her forehead in a faintly swoony gesture, visually rhyming with Carlito’s pose across the street.) Gail has already had a smaller-scale reckoning with her own limitations, as well, since she became a pole dancer—but unlike Carlito, she’s resigned herself to the life she’s got, which is why she initially treats Carlito’s “new man” rap with appropriate skepticism. Then she embraces it and holds Carlito to a high standard, at times seeing his predicament more clearly than he does.

Ironically, as Carlito gets himself entangled in schemes and relationships he ought to avoid, he exchanges his old ruthlessness for a newfound sense of mercy. When Carlito’s Way was released, it was predictably interpreted as an apology for De Palma and Pacino’s notorious Scarface, because its hero was trying so hard to be good. But it’s fairer to describe it as the former film’s mirror opposite. Where Tony Montana has little self-awareness and less self-knowledge and dies largely ignorant of his own limitations, Carlito puts a frame around his entire life from minute one, and has no greater desire than to understand and then change himself. The commingling of honor and kindness kills him: Carlito has the chance to kill his backstabbing old friend Lalin (Viggo Mortensen), a wheelchair-bound convict sprung from prison in exchange for wearing a wire and gathering information on the hero—but lets him go instead. He also could have—and surely should have—killed Benny, a flamboyantly disrespectful little shit who’s the gangster film equivalent of the punk cowpokes in westerns (from Henry King’s The Gunfighter through David Milch’s Deadwood) who hope to make their reputation by ambushing a legendary old gunfighter they couldn’t beat fair and square. The remnants of Carlito’s pride in his street rep make it impossible for him to treat Benny with anything but haughty contempt; after he forcibly ejects Benny from his nightclub for defying his authority—tossing the younger man down a flight of stairs—he says, in voice-over, like a viewer talking back to a movie, “Big mistake.” And after the prison break, Carlito should have killed Dave, but he just couldn’t—a catastrophic error confirmed by a subsequent image of Carlito at his nightclub, trapping a cockroach beneath an overturned glass and then letting it go.

If Carlito’s Way had been content to explore its characters and themes prosaically, it might still have been a likable, even memorable film. But what elevates it to pop art status—despite a number of missteps, including Mortensen’s cheeseball faux-P.R. histrionics, the miscast Miller’s Diane Keaton-with-a-lobotomy line delivery, and the strangely tossed-off quality of Pachanga’s betrayal of Carlito—is De Palma’s authorial voice, which finds a vivid cinematic equivalent for a novelist’s point of view. The deathbed flashback structure prompts some of the director’s most precisely modulated POV shots, and it’s worth noting that their intent here is different from visually similar efforts in other De Palma movies. Often, De Palma’s beloved Steadicam setpieces and overhead shots are deployed to suggest a director’s third-person omniscient consciousness—the eye of a coolly observant God who knows and understands things that might elude any one character. Here, although we sometimes see events Carlito himself could not possibly have witnessed—for instance, nearly any scene involving Dave, the Taglialucci family, and their attempts to kill him—the entire story is always tied to Carlito. It’s a beguiling and unique hybrid of first and third person. Call it first-person omniscient— a limited viewpoint that can speculate and project and bend reality to reflect the hero’s attitudes and values. It’s a viewpoint that’s empowered not just to describe, but to characterize, and sometimes to feel.

This mentality is most clearly expressed in the first person tracking shot representing Carlito’s entrance into the nightclub. It’s not a dry factual account of what’s in the room: it moves according to the rhythms of Carlito’s personality, noticing things only he would notice, making value judgments and moving on. Carlito’s gaze sweeps over the whole room, including the balconied upstairs, noting its general layout and décor and characterizing its hard-partying clientele, then follows the maitre d’ (and then a curvy-hipped babe) up the steps, then sweeps screen right across the second floor again, noting the glassed-in manager’s office that Carlito will soon inhabit, then sweeps back and through the upstairs crowd to locate the club’s current boss, the man he came to see.

But Carlito is no cold tactician—not anymore. His strategist’s sensibility—the quality that leads him to improvise a trick shot during the poolroom killing scene, so that he has an excuse to circle the table and get a better sense of the room’s layout—is colored by his newfound passion for the simple act of living. That passion reaches its zenith in the closing shot of the “Paradise” poster in the train station. Like the T.J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby, it crystallizes a universal longing to transcend the hard reality of life—to make dreams come true. As Joe Cocker’s voice sings “You Are So Beautiful,” the poster suddenly becomes animated with silhouettes: conga players calling a tune for a dancing woman whose figure resembles Gail’s, followed by a child who might be Carlito’s offspring. More than a dying man’s wish, this feels like the director reassuring us that Carlito has been magically transformed just as that billboard was transformed, and that his essence was passed on. Against all odds, De Palma gives us a happy ending. But not out of nowhere: the entire film is borne aloft by hope, a sense that nothing is fixed, that anything is possible in life. As Carlito details his past mistakes and delusions, the film is suffused with a warmth that comes from knowing that despite the pain of existence, it’s better to be alive than dead. Cocker’s song speaks simultaneously in two directions: it expresses the movie’s love for its transformed hero, and Carlito’s love for life itself.