I think the reason that Goodfellas is (probably) my favorite gangster movie is because it does the best job of depicting the extreme bundle of paradoxes that the gangster arc is all about: decadence married with violence, respect married with danger, protection married with paranoia, fraternity married with backstabbing, romance married with disdain. It’s the highest highs and the lowest lows, and Scorsese really captures it with his unmatched artistic touch.
You know the story (even if you don’t know the story), so I won’t bother beyond the barebones: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) joins the Mafia as a young man, befriending the more experienced Jimmy “the Gent” (Robert De Niro) and the short-fused Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Despite mishaps, they’re pretty good at the whole gangster business. Things go well, fortunes are made, drugs and women consumed; then, things take a turn, alliances are broken, things go south, our anti-hero is toppled.
Every component of its craft is phenomenal. This is two and a half hours of sustained brilliance, spanning 30+ years, like a great epic novel come to life. Just when you think you know exactly what kind of movie it is, the next episode is something slightly different, while all still fitting the requisite gangster rise-fall arc. (The notable exception being that Henry Hill doesn’t get the romantic “made it, ma!” blaze-of-glory death that many of his fictional counterparts do. He’s stuck being a “schnook” — the mirror of his early obsession of glamour.)
The acting is amazing, top to bottom. Joe Pesci is terrifying as a psychotic hitman who hates having his balls busted; it’s not hard to see why he won the Oscar. De Niro is maybe even better, but only gets a few scenes to really flex his chops. Ray Liotta is very good as the star, too, though I found myself wanting an extra level from him as I was watching this time.
You can watch Goodfellas with a notebook in hand, jotting down every brilliant touch in every scene, and fill dozen of pages before the credits roll. Alternately, you can just soak it all in. It’s an experiential ride and emotional roller coaster and gripping story just as much as it’s a masterwork of the form.
A few things that always catch my eye (and/or ear): The long takes that capture the wise guys’ total control of the space around them; the tone-setting and evocative music selections; the moment-to-moment pacing via brilliant editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker (most impressive, for my money, in Hill’s drug-addled paranoid episode in the final half hour); the amazing period and setting details that suck you into 1970s New York; the captivating details of the logistics of criminal life, especially the Lufthansa heist that curdles; the gut-wrenching abruptness of violence a dozen times through (Layla sequence, Pesci’s death, the mauling of Billy Batts) etc. etc. etc.
It’s almost a daunting film to watch, so epic and emotionally taxing and rewarding of the viewers’ attention to detail. I try not to throw around “Masterpiece” lightly, but what film deserves it if not Goodfellas?
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100