WHAT I LIKED: "Everything's beautiful and there's nothing to worry about," muses the murdering, drug-running gangster Tommy in Martin Scorsese's 'Goodfellas,' as he stands inches from years in prison or potential death. That seems to be the default attitude of all gangsters with their life of oppulence, back-slapping and dripping wealth, but it also seems to be the attitude that most filmmakers take when bringing their worlds to life. Time and time again - even in greats such as 'Mean Streets,' and 'The Godfather,' - I find myself rolling my eyes as the folks behind the camera get a little too distracted from gangsters' poison and evil when indulging in the intrigue of their sprawling meetings and deeds.
'Goodfellas,' is a film where we spend virtually all of our time in such situations, but here that's never a complaint because almost every moment serves to ingenuously explore that familiar but often unspoken divide between the glossy, alluring facade, and the darkness beneath it all.
That's enabled because the whole thing is viewed from Henry (Ray Liotta) and his partner Karen (Lorraine Bracco)'s perspective - initially through Henry's young eyes as a poor boy admiring it all and becoming a small part of it, and then from the pair's point of view as they become increasingly involved over the course of many years later. We follow their uninitiated eyes through the glamour, and that firstly helps you to understand the appeal of it, as for Henry there's a sense of masculinity, brotherhood and, ultimately, family that he couldn't get from his childhood home. On the other hand though, we also crucially get to hear their thoughts about what they're seeing through narration where it becomes increasingly clear that they know things aren't all as soreen as their surface suggests because of how hard they're trying to convince themselves.
"I didn't see anything strange about a 21 year old kid with all those connections," says Karen amusingly upon first meeting Henry; "the only way these blue collar guys can make a little extra money is to cut a few corners," she later lies to herself. Henry similarly tries to convince his conscience that his pals are all just a bunch of "goodfellas," making their way in the world, and that the murderers ironically "come with smiles." All that is a great example of how the script is saying so much about that void between appearances and reality without spelling things out, and that also brilliantly adds to an air of sarcasm and irony that powers that whole central theme. In fact, the more evil that each of the characters become complicit in, the more deliberately ignorant they must become by absurdly convincing themselves that everything is all fun and games. Tommy shoots an innocent man in the foot and laughs it off hysterically to save face, the erratic Jimmy furiously ends up stabbing a guy and covers it up all with his seemingly carefree attitude, and Karen seems to buy more and more expensive furniture for her fancy home as she becomes increasingly aware of what's beneath her husband's appearances.
It's clear though that underneath the acts of indulgence they're tortured, fragile and cracking personalities, and that's emphasised by Scorsese's use of off-kilter rock and roll music and the dramatic performances from high-flying mobsters Robert DeNiro and Jo Pesci. In the end, the more we see of them all, the more we pity them, and the more we long for them to acknowledge the atrocity of everything that's going on. When Henry inevitably does at the end it's a highly rewarding thing, and it's testatement to how Scorsese builds that ever-growing conflict between the facade and the reality throughout that means we're still thoroughly engaged when he gets there.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: It's hard to fault... what it does, it does perfectly.
VERDICT: 'Goodfellas,' tragically and ironically shows its characters increasingly grappling to convince themselves that everything is fine whilst things become increasingly poisonous and evil. It's one of the finest gangster films of all as a result, and one of Scorsese's very best works.