Released a decade after Scarface, Carlito’s Way is frequently described as Brian De Palma’s “apology” for the earlier, cruder gangster film. The two share much in common, focusing on the rise and fall of Latino drug criminals, both played by Al Pacino. It doesn’t help that Carlito’s Way is the exceedingly more sophisticated, refined and overall better film of the two, an achievement in an oeuvre that had experienced growing pains since Scarface in developing De Palma’s authorial brilliance within the confines of Hollywood filmmaking.
Yet even though the two films are inextricably linked—and not just narratively, but thematically and ideologically—the comparisons to De Palma’s earlier film are so pronounced and so frequent in critical discourse that one can sometimes lose sight of examining a film like Carlito’s Way as its own individual text. Many critics couldn’t see Carlito’s Way as anything broader than softhearted genre filmmaking, a psychological drama within a tired genre with little originality to offer. While it’s useful to examine Carlito’s Way as “talking back” to the contemporary gangster films that came before it, the approach can also prove limiting. The film is one of the best—if not the best—works in De Palma’s career, in spite of its clichés. How does De Palma pull this off? Instead of trying to subvert conventions, De Palma works within the system of gangster film signifiers, but the focus here is on the complex morality and character arc of Carlito Brigante, a strategy that pays off beautifully.
The film opens with the end, an operatic (though not melodramatic) slow-motion black-and-white prologue that establishes not only the fact that the protagonist is a doomed character—killed suddenly right before he steps onto a train with his lover to escape—but that the entire tale is about Carlito’s serene acceptance of death, shown through a poetic voiceover. De Palma’s camerawork is mesmerizing here, as a tracking shot of Carlito’s POV shifts and swirls around the concerned and mute faces of paramedics, police officers and his girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) as he is wheeled in a stretcher, his eyes focusing on a poster that reads “Escape to Paradise” with a silhouette sketch of musicians and dancers on a tropical beach. The fall of a man this intelligent and wise must be a truly tragic one; the film quickly moves onto its flashback sequence as the dying Carlito’s life flashes through his eyes.
It’s a story marked by thug-life savviness and Carlito’s code of loyalty, and how his values are essentially what fuck him over in escaping the one life he’s ever known. The criminal world is unavoidable for Carlito, and the braggadocio required to stay in it, even on the periphery, is tiring, not to mention a facade—a realization Carlito made long after his no-nonsense demeanor became second-nature to him as he became one of the most feared men on the streets.
But in order to demonstrate Carlito’s inability to escape a system that traps him, the film must contrast Carlito’s epiphanies with other characters. The lust and pride in gangsterdom is heavily emphasized throughout the film, even within small, insignificant characters. His baby cousin has grown into a cocky novice dealer whose naiveté quickly proves fatal. Even earlier, in a scene in which Carlito informs his sleazebag wannabe-gangster lawyer Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) of his retirement plans, there is a beautifully deliberate sweeping pan of the two women the men picked up at the bar, who gaze distractedly and dreamily at the phallic, glimmering bottles of liquor on the bar shelf. Virtually everyone Carlito meets post-jail is stuck in a fantasy world, and he’s the only one smart and old enough to see through its lies.
His plan—to raise enough money to buy into his friend’s car rental company in the Bahamas, where he also plans to retire—is routinely made fun of by others, who see it as a sign of impotence from the once undefeatable Carlito (indeed, it’s this same impression that leads his bodyguard Pachanga, played by Luis Guzmán, to betray him, which ultimately results in his death). His biggest mistake (intoned through voiceover, though it never feels forced or unnecessary here, simply reflective) is being forced into an argument with up-and-coming gangster Benny Blanco “from the Bronx” (John Leguizamo), playing rough with him, and then choosing to let him go instead of killing him. It’s a sign of mercy and also Carlito’s refusal to get involved in anything messy, but holding onto a moral compass among criminals proves fatal, a fact that he should know better.
Carlito’s Way refers to his ethical code, something that apparently only applies to the older generation of criminals in the barrio—the younger kids are too trigger happy these days—but this turns out to be a false, nostalgic belief, as numerous old colleagues continue to keep screwing him over for their own gain. Pachanga’s betrayal kills him, and his explanation—”No hard feelings Carlito, but I gotta think about my future, too”—connotes once more the death wish incurred in a system driven by macho displays of power. Indebted to Kleinfeld, Carlito is continuously put in a position where he must help his increasingly paranoid, crazy cokehead friend—or a so-called one, as Kleinfeld actually tries to rat him out to the D.A. to save his own ass. An old colleague, Lalin (Viggo Mortensen), tries to pull the same stunt. Carlito believes he’s re-entering the same world of predictable gestures and business practices, but it was always this volatile. The clothes, music, style and drug of choice may be different in the ‘80s, but it’s the same dog-eat-dog world he once owned. Now, he no longer owns it.
It would be incorrect to label Carlito’s Way simply a tragedy. Yes, the film is about a flawed tragic hero, but the narrative would not be able to carry itself were it not for Carlito’s sense of optimism and straight determination in escaping to paradise (with his cool-headed demeanor frequently the one helpful factor that prevents his friends from being killed). The best scenes that help establish this idealism is his re-blooming relationship with Gail, in whom he sees a happy, peaceful future. When he passes away, acceptance of his death occurs because he knows that even without him, Gail will be able to achieve her dreams as a dancer with his ample escape funds. The fact that she’s pregnant means the connection between the two lovers will never be truly lost. The “Escape to Paradise” poster comes alive in Carlito’s imagination as the shapes in the picture turn into a dancing Gail amidst the palm trees. His death may come prematurely, but he dies with that optimism still intact, his “way” a long and wistful road to redemption.