WARNING: This analysis contains Spoilers for ‘Scarface’.
“What goes up, must come down.”
This mantra lies at the heart of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s 1983 Gangster epic. In the end, everyone loses. Over the course of this article, I aim to dissect what many consider one of the best gangster films ever made, in order to outline the film’s underlying nihilistic qualities.
Introduction: What Is Nihilism?
Nihilism, in short, is the belief that life is practically meaningless. There are many types of nihilism. These include:
- Epistemological Nihilism — The belief that everything that has existed could also have not have existed.
- Political Nihilism — The belief that for a better future, religious, political, and social orders must be abandoned.
- Moral Nihilism — The belief that concepts like good and evil are meaningless, as there is no definitive “right” in the universe.
- Existential Nihilism — The belief that life itself has no meaning or value.
For this article, I am specifically looking at how Scarface contains elements of moral, political and existential nihilism. The story arc in Scarface is – as we would it call it – ‘rags to riches’ in the most literal sense. At the start of the film, Tony has next to nothing and works long hours as a dishwasher. By the end of the film, he owns an enormous mansion, multiple cars, and a tiger. He is insanely rich.
However, Tony (Pacino) isn’t happy. Despite reaching ‘the top’, he has arguments with his wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) over dinner, and sits alone in his house snorting cocaine. He has everything he wants, and yet he still feels unfulfilled. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo frames Tony as a tiny figure in the midst of his overblown “throne room” to accentuate this.
Elvira (Pfeiffer) also faces an existential crisis of her own. In Tony’s words:
“You got nothing to do with your life, man. Why don’t you get a job? Do something, be a nurse. Work with blind kids, lepers, that kind of thing. Anything beats you waiting around all day, waiting for me to fuck you, I’ll tell you that.”
The only joy she gets out of life comes from her drugs. She also realises this herself, and this comes to a head during a public argument over dinner:
“Can’t you see what we’re becoming, Tony? We’re losers. We’re not winners, we’re losers. Later on, at dinner, she also takes aim at Tony’s way of life: How dare you talk to me like that? What makes you so much better than me? What do you do? Kill people? Deal your drugs? The real contribution to human history, Tony! What makes you think you can be a father? You don’t even know how to be a good husband!”
Director De Palma underlines Scarface with the moral message that wealth, even copious amounts of it, will not get you true happiness. However, for most people, getting to Tony’s position of wealth is the ultimate goal. So what is the point of trying if even our highest aspirations will not bring us the fulfilment we think we deserve? De Palma takes a bold stance here, taking aim at our own dreams and aspirations. Tony’s belief in himself eventually allows him both success and wealth, but only for a short period of time before he is killed.
Through his death, Tony becomes yet another victim of the drug trade, a meaningless statistic.
Moral Nihilism In Scarface
First of all, moral nihilism is personified here by Tony Montana, who is himself morally ambiguous. While Tony won’t kill woman and children, he will kill scores of men, and deal large quantities of his drugs across the US border. His moral compass is flawed. Even the film’s now-iconic theatrical poster portrays Tony as being a man stuck between the black and the white, the good and the bad.
In the film, Tony kills out of his own twisted version of justice. He kills many of his victims because they have betrayed him. He doesn’t kill Mel (Harris Yulin), Frank (Robert Loggia), or even Manny (Steven Bauer) because he dislikes them. They all betray him at some point during the film. In that case, then, he isn’t a bad man. He is essentially just protecting his best interest: himself. From an audience’s perspective, we don’t see Tony as a bad man, because we relate to his insatiable desire to get to the top of the food chain — but does that make us bad people?
Tony faces a crisis of morality during the dinner scene with Elvira that I mentioned previously, as he breaks down and rants at the other diners saying:
“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. This the last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”
Tony is realising here that his own moral code is flawed. Despite having certain redeemable qualities, Elvira’s words have had an effect on him. Murder and drug dealing is not something that is normal in an ordinary society. The only thing he can use to defend himself is the fact that he is honest about his sin, which is his self-denial speaking. Tony’s own moral code wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, obviously, and the weight of his violent actions fully hits him during the final act, when friends and family alike abandon him.
Political Nihilism in ‘Scarface’
While Tony isn’t an out-and-out political nihilist, he does possess certain traits of one. For example:
- Tony is against Communism, as it takes away control and forces people to follow orders.
- Tony is against Capitalism, as stated with his famous “Capitalism is getting fucked!” line. Doubly ironic, as he uses the same system to launder his dirty money.
- Tony trusts no one but himself and makes decisions selfishly. This is highlighted in the iconic – “Who do I trust? Me!” – scene.
- Tony acts outside the law, and states that “there are no laws these days.”
- Tony doesn’t really follow any particular code or creed apart from his own moral code.
Personally, I feel like director De Palma is against nihilism. Tony has possessed the qualities of multiple nihilist beliefs and ultimately ends up dead. Tony is selfish to the point that he trusts no one else but himself and becomes consumed by wanting more. Someone who believes in nothing but money will end up unfulfilled.