Design by Mellisa Lee

I can’t think of many movies that are as free-flowing yet impeccably precise as Martin Scorsese’s (“The Irishman”) “Goodfellas.” In a career full of bold and skillfully constructed projects, this one stands alone. I have a friend back home whom I make fun of for using the term “magnum opus,” but in this case, I think its usage is apt. I’ve seen 12 of Scorsese’s films, across four or five decades and many different genres and styles — he is not just “that gangster guy.” While “Silence” and “The Irishman” show that he is still as lively and talented as he was in his youth, nothing he has created has surpassed 1990’s “Goodfellas” — and I doubt any of his future projects will either. 

“Goodfellas” follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, “Marriage Story”) from his teenage years and through his gangster career and walks us through his mindset at various points in his life. Though he initially denies it feverishly, he slowly realizes that the life he idolizes is a brutal and dangerous state of paranoia. However, even with this knowledge, he never condemns the mafia model of living and considers it favorable to “a normal life,” or, as he says, the life of a “schnook.” 

I can’t talk about “Goodfellas” without mentioning the supporting players that surround Henry Hill’s life. Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”) plays Jimmy Conway, a cold, calculating and slightly older Irish crook who mentors and indoctrinates Henry and organizes many of the riskier jobs. Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco, “The Sopranos”) is Henry’s brazen and outspoken wife, whose adrenaline-fueled attraction to Henry mirrors Henry’s own addiction to the mafia lifestyle. But the scene-stealer here is Joe Pesci’s (“The Irishman”) unpredictable loose cannon Tommy DeVito. Tommy offers none of the sympathetic qualities that shine through Henry on occasion. He’s funny, confident and bold but also has the emotional maturity of an infant and carries no remorse for his actions. You never really know what he’s going to do next, and watching him is like eyeing a time bomb: You are always awaiting the boom.

What I love most about this movie is how it takes the audience from place to place. The film is meticulous and detailed, where every camera angle, line of dialogue and facial twitch carries some weight towards the broader examinations of the characters and themes. The movie can be described as “plotless,” with the focus being on how Henry perceives the lifestyle and how his perceptions change rather than any specific conflict. This is by no means a slight: Every single scene exudes unshakable confidence and a strong sense of control. As the tension escalates and the reality of the criminal underworld starts to seep in, Henry and his associates lose control of their situation, and Scorsese tightens his ironclad glove on capturing it.

But the really wonderful thing about “Goodfellas,” at least for me, is how accessible and entertaining it is. There is sometimes this notion that art and fun don’t always intersect or that one has to be sacrificed for the other. But I think movies like “Goodfellas” destroy this theory. I can go into this movie with a fully analytical lens, watching every snippet of every scene with an eagle eye to see all the little details contributing to the meaning as a whole. Or, I can go into the film while slouching on the couch, letting the smooth pacing and editing grab me and whisk me away. Both viewings are equally fruitful. 

In this film, Scorsese both intellectually and instinctually captures that feeling of idolizing something and being enamored, and echoing the effect of watching the film. Just as Henry is being seduced by the lifestyle of the mafia, we are being seduced by the pure fluidity and clarity of Scorsese’s vision and technique. I have yet to see a film that relates to the viewer outside of the vacuum of the film in such a breathless and dynamic way. We experience all the emotional highs and lows of Henry’s life, and they become the emotional highs and lows of our viewing experience. For this reason, “Goodfellas” is the quintessential crime movie. It doesn’t simply tell the audience of the allure of organized crime — it relates that feeling to the audience on a primal level. You’ll never want to feel like a regular schnook again. 

Daily Arts Contributor Alvin Anand can be reached at alvinsa@umich.edu.