Goodfellas (1990)—The Beginning of an Even Better Movie

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

The problem with sin is that it feels so good.

That truly is the problem. No one would follow in it otherwise. Sin, as a concept, has nothing to recommend it. But in practice, sin is exhilarating. It feels like life (which it is not). The sinner feels like one’s most natural self when experiencing the indulgence that has him or her in its grip. And it’s not just the sensual indulgences to which this applies. Anger, too—it feels great to unleash rage. The unleashing leaves costly aftereffects, a clue to the true nature of the choice, but the trap of sin is that we often choose the same indulgence again as a way to respond to the effects that come.

Sin always leaves wreckage in its wake. That is its nature. Sin is death that feels like life during the brief moment while it’s happening. 

We see this in Goodfellas. A gangster in the 1960s and 70s, main character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) led a life of barely restrained indulgence, including stolen wealth and domineering others. Hill’s words describe how that life felt to him at the time:

“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

But even by that point in the movie, we know it didn’t last. We know the wreckage had come. The entire movie is narrated looking back, by someone who no longer had access to what he was remembering. We see why at the end: Hill has testified against his closest friend and his most admired mentor in court, and he has gone into witness protection under the observation of the state.

The movie also offers a realistic picture of how sin begins. Hill as a child was looking for the way to live, as we all are. He looked out his window and saw what he thought was life, in the form of the mobsters hanging out across the street from his childhood home.

The realism ends there. As gangster movies do, this one gives us unrealistic crimes. To enjoy the movie, we need to sympathize with the gangster’s exploits. So a truck full of cargo is stolen. We never see the small business owner spiraling toward ruin because of the income lost in that theft. We see a young man working as a waiter who is killed in a moment of rage. We never see the parent or the young bride whose heart is shattered by this loss. Gangster movies give us crimes without impact, crimes without consequence. Which never happens in actual life.

What is the message of Goodfellas? It doesn’t really have one. That crime doesn’t pay? I am not sure it didn’t in this case. I’m not sure Hill didn’t come out ahead, because of the memories he now seemingly still enjoys. We don’t see repentance on Hill’s part, let alone sorrow or a sense of achieved meaning. And why repent, since those crimes had no consequence? He is looking back and marveling upon a moment he got to experience, and that is what this movie is: a painting of that moment.

The way of life is fruitful. Life bears fruit—good fruit that lifts or sustains others, fruit that lasts. That is why, strangely, the way of life often does not feel like life when it is happening. It involves building, striving against obstacles, humility, devotion, duty, self-denial, and often humdrum routine. For a great many, it involves taking the subway to work every day.

There is a better Goodfellas to be told. What is the fruit Henry Hill is now bearing within this new life after being a mobster? This is what the movie is missing. He looked out his window looking for life and he found its twisted imposter. This part is true. (Parents, what windows are your children looking through?) We frequently do not have a moment in which we knowingly and gravely choose sin. Rather, we find it or it finds us; we find ourselves in the midst of it without knowing quite how we got there. We don’t get lost—we realize we are lost. What then?

That moment is the beginning of life. And that moment for Hill, which is the ending of the moment we see, can only be the beginning of a story even better than the one we have been given in this film. Was Hill’s mind ever changed? Did he find something new; was he broken into beginning again? Did he ever become a good fellow?