Ethical Dilemma in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead arouses interesting questions not only on what or who killed God but also on how human society, devoid of the long-held comfort of the polarity of ethical and moral grounds, would formulate judgements of what is real, good, or beautiful in their lives and in the world. The moral and ethical contradiction of a world where Truth does not exist is shown in the movie Glengarry Glen Rose which is an exploration of the motivations and impetus of individuals in a society where the duality good and evil have ceased to become the standards. Arguably, the film portrays the ethical dilemma in a postmodern world, notably posed by Nietzsche, who observed that the demise of the notion of absolute Truth is a double-edged sword for society. This is because the lack of clearcut and universally held concepts of what is right or wrong, while at first seems to connote freedom, ultimately leaves a void that leads to human despair and nihilistic feelings.
Adapted for the big screen from a play written by the movie’s director David Mamet (1992), Glengarry Glen Ross follows two days in the lives of four real estate agents who face a bleak future if they do not close a deal soon. These characters, played by a veteran and brilliant cast which includes Al Pacino (Ricky Roma), Jack Lemmon (Shelley Levene), Ed Harris (Dave Moss), and Alan Arkin (George Aaronow), are told point blank by company representative Blake (Alec Baldwin) that the company will fire every salesman except for the top two within one week. The agents, desperate to retain their jobs and continue to earn a living, commit actions that raise questions and at the same time comments on how far human beings in today’s society would go to preserve themselves and attain their materialistic dreams. In a couple of days, the characters become involved in a series of events that show how human culture has tremendously suffered from the lack of ethical and moral considerations.
Apart from capturing the apparent decay in human culture, the film is particularly concerned about the motives and assumptions that drive each sales agent’s actions and how these motives often result in clashing interests. This is evident in how the themes of truth, status, and identity are tackled based on the feelings, thoughts, and actions of the characters in the film. For instance, Blake’s character as a ruthless and unfeeling company representative is clearly intended to parody the attitude of big business when it comes to ensuring a healthy bottom line, which is clearly against the interest of its workers.
On the other hand, these workers—or salespeople—are depicted as similar to Blake himself in terms of cruelty and lack of humanity. Ricky Roma, for instance, is later shown to be a heartless soul who takes advantage of the weaknesses of others to advance his objectives. Shelley Levene likewise resorts to thievery in order to close a sale and exact vengeance on his perceived enemies. In the end, Blake’s character with its apparent inhumanity becomes less despicable as the frailties and weaknesses of other characters are exposed. Ironically, the audience is led to feel pity for such human weakness instead of being led to feel righteous. This is because the film attempts to evoke empathy in its viewers for characters who are, alas, as human as the viewers are and whose justifications for “wrongdoing” resonate with the audience.
Arguably, the narrative of the movie itself is a statement against the ethics—or the lack of it—of the four real estate agents. In this sense, Glengarry Glen Ross delivers a stinging critique of how society’s sense of ethics and even the sense of morality have been replaced by materialistic desires. The story of the four salesmen, desperate and “immoral,” mirrors the realities faced by individuals in their quest for personal success and a higher social status and how this quest, ironically, often results to the further debasement of the humanity in the individual.
The film, in fact, is full of such play at irony that depicts how people’s worth are not judged by society based on how “good” they live their lives but on the number of material things they possess. In this social order, humans are segregated by their class, ethnic identity, and gender which determine their ability or their eligibility for access to basic and higher needs. The film’s narrative itself, which revolves around real estate agents trying to sell dirt in its figurative and literal meaning, alludes to the way in which humans are not anymore concerned with telling the truth or with earning a living through honest ways or at least, without causing the ruin of others. Apparently, today’s world has gone beyond being immoral or corrupted to being amoral or lacking in moral standards itself.
Thus, the ethical dilemma raised by the film reflects Nietzsche’s argument on the death of God, referring to the demise of society’s dualist notion of good or evil. With this death, everything that humans have come to believe in becomes subject to doubt as truth falters in its absolute hold on consciousness. In this society, even the realities of human experience—the entire spectrum of feelings and thoughts—can be questioned and examined for their validity. Human acts are therefore defined not by their conformity with accepted norms or intrinsic values but by the circumstance surrounding them. This circumstance, in turn, becomes the standard by which an act becomes socially acceptable.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, the death of universal values and norms for what is good or evil meant that ethical considerations were dispensable and were useful only when the need arises. Ricky Roma’s character, for instance, engages in a monologue—which is later revealed to be a sales pitch—that shows how society and individuals have suspended all forms of judgement in favor of individuality. Accordingly, Roma’s speech, which deals with stealing, cheating, and even pedophilia in a nonchalant manner, is a tell-tale sign of the central argument made in the film: that the death of absolute Truth has entailed the death of things once cherished by humans such as the concept of love and goodness.
According to Nietzsche, this has created a void in individuals who felt lost without the ethical values and concept of morality that served to anchor their lives. Instead, these ethical ideals such as Truth, were replaced by the notion that there was a multiplicity of truth depending on how these benefitted society or the individual. Ultimately, however, Nietzsche points out that this loss of a sense of ethics and morality also leads, for many individuals, to lose their sense of meaning and to despair. Thus, loneliness and desperation is pervasive in Glengarry Glen Ross; for how could men engaged in crafting lies to their fellow humans in order to earn a living be able to live truly meaningful lives?
It is therefore in portraying the ruthless and callous ways with which human beings act in a system dominated by materialistic notions of success and happiness, that Glengarry Glen Ross succeeds at brutally dissecting individual motivations and actions based on Nietzsche’s philosophy. Consequently, the film is able to provoke retrospection on what has become a reality for many individuals in a materialistic society, and to evoke the decision of whether this is a reality that is worth maintaining for the long term or one that needs to be transformed and changed to affirm the meaning of human life.
Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. David Mamet. Perf. Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey. New Line Cinema, 1992.