“Violence is not the answer, it doesn’t work any more.”—Martin Scorsese
It’s hard to believe that Goodfellas is turning 30. One of Scorsese’s most celebrated works, the 1990 mob-epic has become the defining work of the genre. Based on the 1985 novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, the film investigates the cultural glorification of a life of crime as well as the moral vacuum that it often exists in. Although it is frequently compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, Scorsese’s take on organised crime is his own and a very interesting one at that.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Goodfellas is full of iconic lines but that’s the one which draws the audience into the insidiously opulent underworld of the 1960s and the ‘70s. The entire film is a recollection of-sorts, a fluid yet disjointed memoir narrated by our protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Liotta’s character is based on a real mobster with the same name and his performance wonderfully complements the gritty realism of the film. Scorsese wanted to treat his adaptation as a “staged documentary” and that’s exactly what we get. Goodfellas is an unflinching look at a world of violence where the corpse of morality has long been buried.
We are introduced to the early hardships and the eventual glamour of the criminal lifestyle through Henry’s eyes. For a young boy like Henry, gangs provide subjectivity and a sense of belonging. Just a year after the release of Scorsese’s film, this very subject was explored on a much larger scale in Edward Yang’s magnum opus A Brighter Summer Day but, in Goodfellas, it lays the foundation for Hill’s meteoric rise (and fall). He gets obsessed with the gangsters he sees outside his window, individuals who do whatever they want to without any consequences. Instead of going to school, he would work odd jobs for the criminals he idolised:
“How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bullshit?”
This is an important moment in the film because it signifies the collapse of institutional values in the minds of the young generation. In a world where capital dictates your worth as a human being, why waste time drowning in the mediocrity of a middle-class life when you can take a shortcut to success? This lucrative yet flawed ratiocination thrusts Hill into a world of lobster dinners and drugs, guns and girls, death and despair. A common complaint against Goodfellas is that it glamorises the life of a mobster but this initial deification of the mobster-figure and the associated lifestyle is important for the eventual disillusionment that Scorsese aims for.
Hill’s world might appear like paradise at first but it is a deeply problematic one. It is a world where rampant racism dominates conversations and patriarchal acts of violence against women are normalised. Fragile masculinities are covered with expensive suits and perceived threats are eliminated with the ultimate phallic symbol: the gun. The perfect example is Tommy (Academy Award-winning performance from Joe Pesci) who exhibits this behavioural trait in several scenes including the iconic “What’s so funny?” exchange. He kills people without thinking twice, regardless of whether they are established mobsters like Billy Batts or young apprentices like Spider. The memory of cold-blooded murders dissolves in the cacophony of exaggerated laughter.
Scorsese uses several interesting techniques in order to enhance the visual narrative, combining voice-overs with freeze frames and indulging in long tracking shots (the scene where Hill takes Karen out on a proper date for the first time). The soundtrack is beautifully congruous to the trajectory of Hill, switching from smooth jazz to the frantic dynamism of rock music. He depicts the legacy of crime through a beautiful montage featuring stashed corpses, set to the Derek and the Dominos classic “Layla”. Hill even breaks the fourth wall in an attempt to blur the lines between a feature film and a mockumentary. Even if Goodfellas isn’t as conceptually bizarre as Scorsese’s 1985 work After Hours (which is a hidden gem in his filmography), it is the honest product of a filmmaker who was at the apogee of his artistic abilities.
The term ‘Goodfellas’ itself is cruelly ironic because they were some of the most ruthless criminals of their time. Scorsese’s genius is that he introduces us to each and every character as if they were our own extended family, developing the same kind of fraternity that Hill shared with these people. Jimmy Conway (played by De Niro) is built up as a friend throughout the film but at the end, when cocaine-induced paranoia has taken hold of both Hill and Karen, nothing is clear anymore. It perfectly demonstrates that in the ‘system’ of organised crime, you always have to look over your back and you cannot trust anyone. Even though choosing a life of crime seems like a rebellion against failing institutions, it is an act of replacing traditional value systems with a merciless one. Hill does not just break the fourth wall but also breaks “the two greatest rules of life”: never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut. The tragedy of Goodfellas is that this confession isn’t rooted in any sense of guilt or a need for salvation, it is simply self-preservation.
Hill disappears into the mysterious machinations of the Witness Protection Program but he cannot tolerate it. Mediocrity’s stench is unbearable to him and he feels trapped in a life that has lost all meaning (the sound of a prison door slamming shut can be heard at the end). With a disgruntled resignation, Hill says:
“I’m an average nobody.”