Directed by Martin Scorsese
Alright so we know the story, the rise and fall of Henry Hill from “I always wanted to be a gangster” to “I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” It’s a classic gangster story and even more than that an American story. You can have it all if you just play your cards right, but at some point it won’t be enough. In the case of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), you slowly harden and bloat overtime with stimulants, excess and then rampant paranoia. To know what it took to get to the top of the mountain suddenly you know what everyone else is trying to do to push you off of it.
In Goodfellas we watch Hill’s rather dramatic rise through the mafia ranks as if its as natural as watching a child grow up in a coming of age film. He starts out as a teenager parking cars, then he drops out of school and is quickly making more money than anyone else on his block. Along the way young Henry meets all of his new role models and then when he’s arrested for selling stolen packs of cigarettes it is treated as the momentous, joyous rite of passage into adulthood. Next time we see Henry he is played by Liotta, and he is completely immersed in the family.
It’s a rather simple and appealing depiction of inclusion, just being a part of something bigger than yourself. It helps that money abounds and people treat him with respect, albeit because they are so scared of him.
But as Henry and his eventual wife Karen (Lorraine Brasco) explain to us in narration, the mob was only surrounded by the mob and thus their behavior was quickly normalized. So for much of the film, after Henry’s initial monologue about wanting to be a part of the club, Henry only deals with other gangsters. Suddenly we’re so deep inside that the real world no longer exists.
And once it is all normalized, like a heroin addict who now needs the drug just to feel ordinary, it quickly starts to wear off. The second half of the film is nightmarish but I suppose all the more gleeful because of how much Henry and co. have come to earn their comeuppance.
It’s actually quite a stark contrast between the two halves of the film. The first half, I’d say, boils down to the famous long take scene in which Henry and Karen glide through the rear entrance of a crowded restaurant and have a table carried out just for them while The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” rumbles along in their wake. It’s dreamlike in the best ways, and it’s hard not to feel those same feelings of pride, wonder and ego.
And then in the second half you have the entire sequence in which Henry, his face somehow mimicking the texture of an excavated demolition site, scurries around town making gun and drug deals, snorting his own supply and trying to figure out if the feds are tailing him.
It’s the night before and the night after, and both moments are tied together, one unable to exist without the other.
From the moment the film begins you know it’s going to get ugly. The cold open, in fact, begins with Henry, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) taking a dying man out to bury him in the woods. It’s something rotten under the surface that’s concealed by stiff suits, stiffer haircuts and stacks of money. It’s as if, were you to be embraced by one of these men, you could smell the mix of too much cologne and hairspray with the smell of decomposing flesh.
It’s hard not to enjoy the glamour in the first half, but that is very quickly undercut and made to be mocked. Maybe it starts with Karen’s first foray into the wives’ club, where she comments on their hideous makeup and the ease with which they talk about their husbands’ criminal activity. But then, like the drugs she too becomes addicted too, she takes on their own habits.
The whole thing is such a roller coaster, of glamour and horror, ego and shame. It’s the idea that you can have it all but the more you grab, the more likely you are to lose it. Nothing earned that quickly, I suppose, is sustainable, like a cargo ship trying to turn ninety degrees before capsizing.
And those opening lines, despite the eventual collapse, speak to a very American idea, just replace “gangster” with the word of your choosing. Henry grew up wanting to be a part of the club, and he made it. We desperately want something and will kill or be killed, so to speak, in an attempt to climb that mountain. Then once we’re at the top all we can see are the people coming for us. Maybe it’s rivals and competitors or maybe it’s just time, nudging us down the other side.