SLANT'S CHUCK BOWEN REVIEWS ARROW'S NEW CARLITO'S WAY RELEASE
Arrow's limited edition 4K UHD Blu-ray of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way was released yesterday. Looking at the extras included in the set, Slant's Chuck Bowen states, "The most essential feature here, though, is the new audio commentary by film critic Matthew Zoller Seitz, who has an impeccable sense of De Palma’s craftsmanship and can get into the nuts and bolts of film grammar without losing a layman in the weeds. Seitz is adept at discussing everything going on in Carlito’s Way from top to bottom."
Here's some of what Bowen has to say about the film itself:
The opening credits sequence establishes a different De Palma register—a cohesion between the sentimental pull of pop cinema and the filmmaker’s sense of visual irony. In black and white, we see a man, whom we will soon know is Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), collapse from a gunshot in a subway station. Carlito falls to the floor, his head tilting toward the ceiling, as his lover, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), crouches beside him. Patrick Doyle’s operatic score swells, while the camera eases from Carlito’s point of view to float freely above and beyond him, suggesting a spirit on the verge of leaving its body. The prismatic compositions are ravishing and tragic.
We’re not told at this point whether or not Carlito dies, though we have a good idea. But the gambit of killing the protagonist within seconds of the opening doesn’t serve the same purpose here as it did in, say, Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder used such a beginning to cast an amusing pall of futility on what followed. There’s futility in the opening of Carlito’s Way, but De Palma takes it deadly seriously. Carlito gazes at a billboard on one of the walls inside the subway station showing a picture of a beach and promising “paradise.” It mocks him as he slips away, succumbing to the pull of personal flaws that he’s failed to transcend. One may remember the Nancy Allen character’s death in Blow Out, brought on by a hero who didn’t know as much as he thought, who couldn’t be the person he wanted to be. Carlito dies for similar reasons.
The governing obsession of De Palma’s art is the limitations and failures of people who try to position themselves as heroes. In 1989, he cauterized this obsession with Casualties of War, bringing to a head the impotency that haunts his work. Perhaps that film, followed by two other maligned box office disasters—The Bonfire of the Vanities and the studio-mangled Raising Cain—softened De Palma up for something mellower in its melancholia—decidedly battered and middle-aged in temperament. Or perhaps he’s just a profoundly skilled artist for hire following the cues of a great screenplay. With a film this good, the distinction barely matters.
Carlito’s Way is a confident blend of several types of movies. It’s a crime melodrama, with most of the attendant clichés accounted for and transcended, especially of the last job before retirement from the underworld. It’s a star vehicle, with Pacino riding high at the crest of a resurgence that began with Harold Becker’s superb 1989 thriller Sea of Love and would continue through the 1990s and into the early aughts. It’s also a character study, filled to the brim with actors doing astonishing work—among them Sean Penn, Viggo Mortensen, John Leguizamo, and Luis Guzmán—with an unusual anecdotal structure. Vignettes interlock in surprising fashion, filling in the contours of Puerto Rican gangster Carlito’s life as he emerges from prison and is hit up by everyone for favors. And Carlito’s Way is also, like many a De Palma film before it, a hall of mirrors, with echoes of the filmmaker’s splashier, meaner, less involving Latino Pacino gangster epic, Scarface, and set pieces that explicitly reference The Untouchables, among others, as well as other Pacino films like The Godfather.
Yet Carlito’s Way has an ease and warmth and fluidity that disincline one to play the game of “spot the reference.” Most of De Palma’s films are floridly emotional, even heartbroken, especially those that he made in the 1970s and ’80s. But they’re also sardonic, as you sense someone fucking with you. With these vintage films, De Palma fans in particular are encouraged to get their pipe out and talk semiotics and wrap their brains around symbolism and motifs and overlook the maestro’s empathy for his characters, especially women.
On the other hand, Carlito’s Way, despite its volatility, allows the viewer to let their guard down. It’s glamorous, with Pacino at the zenith of his romantic magnetism, and De Palma knows how to let the audience soak in the soap-operatic bath. That’s why the film is so painful. It’s a dream about the death of dreams. And the filmmakers aren’t shy about articulating this idea either. Late in the film, Carlito lies in bed with Gail, an aspiring dancer and actress who moonlights as a stripper. They’re talking of ambitions. Carlito is going to leave the Harlem hood life behind and rent cars in the Bahamas, and he seems to believe it too. Of her dancing, Gail says, “Yeah, I had a dream once, but now I’m awake, and I hate my dream.”
That line always blindsides me. It’s even more shocking in its directness now, with modern pop cinema constantly pretending to empower us, telling us that we’re girlbosses and superheroes and that shame doesn’t exist despite evidence to the contrary. Gail cuts to the raw root of what haunts most people as they go through their lives, disappointed in themselves, coming not to recognize the mediocrities they feel themselves to be growing into. Her admission complements what are perhaps the most wrenchingly ironic words to be spoken in a De Palma film, when a young woman, a stranger unfamiliar with what has recently befallen him, tells Michael J. Fox’s character at the end of Casualties of War that a bad dream he references is “over now.”
Those words, well-intended, are poignantly inadequate to addressing the savagery that Fox’s character has had to witness and survive. Dreams can die but nightmares can flourish, an understanding brought about by the disillusionment that every De Palma hero experiences. Earlier, brasher De Palma films showed young characters learning this lesson, while Carlito’s Way exists in a defeated purgatorial realm from the outset. It’s a glossier, more approachable vision of the retrospection that courses through Casualties of War. Which isn’t say that the traditions of a gangster movie can be equated with a true-life story of rape and murder during the Vietnam War. But Carlito’s Way suggests that De Palma had returned to sublimating themes into genre in the wake of the general, grossly unjust rejection of Casualties of War. It’s one of those “for hire” works in which an artist finds an unexpected opportunity to get personal.
The maestro still can deliver his traditional goods as well, as there’s enough formal sizzle in Carlito’s Way for five De Palma films. It’s rich in snaking tracking shots that place us in Carlito’s fevered psyche, and in set pieces of a sensual, escalating intensity, particularly the chase inside Grand Central Terminal, with its slashing through lines and winding camera pirouettes. But the quieter effects are more haunting in Carlito’s Way, such as the blasts of expressionist blue hues that engulf Carlito as he spies on Gail’s dance class in the rain from a roof across the street in a sequence that suggests Rear Window reconfigured as a love sonata. Carlito’s Way is firstly a character film as noir opera. De Palma turns the petty disappointments of our lives into a grand myth, rich in the poetry that makes such disappointments bearable.