NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Scarface & Heisenberg


Scarface doesn’t exactly breathe quantum physics theory now does it? It is practically eighties tragedy incorporated complete with synth and cocaine. When I think of Scarface I do think of the setting, the slow dismantlement of Tony Montana’s world and the crushing blow of his own creed. He lost the game because he refused to let his last morsel of humanity be swallowed whole by the dark. Yet Tony Montana, by the point he lies dead in his Mansion pool, has changed so much that it bids the question of whether or not we’re looking at the same Cuban immigrant or an entirely different person; the violent, coke-a-doodle-doo druglord.

I’m going to apply some pop science to a fairly classic film to try an unearth the truth behind Tony Montana. To what extent does he exactly change in this tragedy of wealth, decay and disturbing reality? Scarface is a display of the corruption of mankind and yet it also unflinchingly dives into darkness when it needs to. We might laugh at Tony’s drunkenness but I doubt there’s smiles when he’s shooting his friends and crying out.

Werner Heisenberg was a German theoretical physics who (probably) helped Hitler try to build an atomic bomb. The Nazis came dangerously close during the war. Heisenberg is probably more well known for also being Walter H. White of Breaking Bad fame, or perhaps for his ‘Uncertainty Principle’. The principle is that the more we know where a particle is, the less we know how fast it’s going. You cannot know both. This means that photons can behave, simultaneously, like particles and waves. The very act of human observation changes their existence; quantum theory essentially breaks the ‘reality’ of our world, like seeing the cracks or code of a video-game.

Scarface follows Tony Montana as he slowly ascends up the ladder rungs of the coke-criminal underworld. He too, throughout many points, changes based on observation. At some points he tells us about how much he “loves kids” and doesn’t act crass, crude or violent around them either. He practically sacrifices his very druglord-dom for these principles. In other parts, however, he is a brutal and disgusting man who yells at his wife and brags about his fiefdom of the Miami coke kingdom. These two men: Scarface and Montana seemingly co-exist within the same space. They change based on perception.

Even from the start we have a man full of attitude – “what you call yourself, “I work a lot with my hands” – but someone with brutal ambition. A lot of the opening section is Tony questioning his friends about whether they “wanna be like a sheep?” Tony sets himself up as way ahead of the flock, and the eighties materialism could very well bleed with the quantum theory. Tony sees that “they all sound the same to me” and during the pop-song bleached sequences, in which he stares out or sits awkwardly in the Babylon club, we’re led to believe that this whole world is full of bland, concrete sheep who exist only within a singular state. Tony Montana, as a protagonist, is still attractive as a character even by the end given his duality. He fluctuates between particle and wave; calm wit and total destructive. The white noise that drowns his vision when he sees his sister in danger, sexual advance or in the arms of his best friend? That’s him crossing the threshold, that’s when a particle can also be a wave.

What goads Tony into his ambition is perhaps a breathless sense of envy and panic. He is told multiple times about how he’s low-class scum, “dishwasher”, “Cuban crime wave”, “the help”, and he questions at one point, about Frank, “what’s he got that I don’t have?” All Tony has is his life, his minimal criminal skill and charm. When being observed by children and folks on the beach, he is jovial and makes fun of his best friend’s attempts with a female. When he’s handcuffed to the rail of a bathtub while his friend is chainsawed up in front of him, he literally spits in the face of death. Tony is confident in both states, but his level of violence and numbness to the excessive changes dramatically.

It’s not just Tony who changes upon observation either but also brief moments involving other characters. While Manny talks about his injury, the bullet that went straight “through me”, Tony looks up and sees Elvira descend down a steel elevator that is practically shaped in the image of that fateful ammunition. There’s symmetrical chaos, punctual poetry, to how things can change upon new observation. At first we may see love going straight “through” Tony as Elvira descends, or perhaps he is faced with the absolute symbols of the violent drug-lord lifestyle; bullets, beautiful girls and alcohol.

Tony even describes, perfectly, the stages of ascension; “When you get the money, when you get the power, then you get the women.” In order to ‘acquire’ the lifestyle he chooses to let himself be seen by criminals, to take on the culture of fear and subvert himself into the world of death. Ignoring all compassion and shrugging off family matters, he gifts his sister a whole boutique at one point, he allows himself to become soaked up in the drug-lord lifestyle. Tony chooses to see himself as the thing, that “the world is yours” but his drug-habits and former cares come back to haunt him. His care for children and his sister are his eventual downfall, even if they’re elements of his leftover persona.

No matter how hard Tony Montana tries, even by his Scarface end, he is still Tony Montana. Both states exist even by the end of the picture, he is both particle and wave. There’s a shot in which Tony acquires Frank’s power in which he is framed against a wall-length picture of a palm beach sunset. It’s the very Caribbean image, and it’s a reminder that Tony cannot escape his roots. He can choose to take on this power, but he will always be that “Cuban immigrant” who cares about family and children, even at the height of his being he will return to this state.

“Every dog has his day” and so it is true of Tony Montana. For he can exist as both particle and wave, he cannot be both. Tony finds depression in being Scarface and loss in being himself. The ending, a coked-up suicide rush of blind violent hubris, is a punctual and fitting end to the unstable destructive being. Quantum theory can tell us a lot about humanity and Tony-Scarface is one of the many lenses we can use to see our own visage. We too exist in multiple states, but we can’t escape our birth-rights. Much like Gatsby and many other American classics, we always come home.