Hell is Other People: A Look Back at Goodfellas

Posted by Robin Russin on

I admit I'm something of a contrarian. I don't believe that all good scripts follow the same three-act structure, and I don't believe we have to like our protagonists. A film like Goodfellas (written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese) offers a good case for this; what's more, with the emergence of such dark and non-formula - but successful- films as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, I believe it has renewed relevance. However, when I first saw this movie, I didn't like it. It upset me and put me off. But it stayed with me, and when I saw it again recently I realized that my visceral reaction had in fact meant that the film had worked, it had spoken to me. I was just uncomfortable with what it had to say. But what it has to say - or, more to the point, how it says it - may be of real value to today's screenwriters.

Goodfellas differs from formula in that, first of all, at 146 minutes it is almost an hour longer than the 90-minute norm. While it contains a three-act structure of rise to power, complications and eventual downfall, it goes beyond the oft-prescribed three plot points (or four, if you count the mid-point as a plot point). In fact, it offers a five-act structure. After the initial flash-forward comes a long, narrated preamble (childhood events, justifications and preparations for Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) life of crime) that comes before the actual three-act story, which starts with the adult Henry's entrance.

This preamble or additional act is matched with a coda, or fifth act, which bookends the three-act story structure in between. Therefore, the movie actually has two beginnings, and at least two endings. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work, because the bookends give a different context through their different style and content to Henry's story of rise and fall.

The whole witness protection sequence, which starts at the two hour mark, is purposefully banal in comparison to what has come before. It ties up many loose ends and pays off certain themes - you don't rat on your friends (or do you?), you don't betray your family (or do you?), you can't live like a king if you give up "the life," etc. - and yet, tying them all up could have been done with a simple screen crawl. What the fifth act, or second ending, provides is the true message: that Henry has been banished to a kind of purgatory, which ironically is the peaceful, normal life most of us hope to lead.

The movie leaves us, then, having enjoyed what Freud called cathexis during the three-act story - a vicarious pleasure in having watched Henry enjoy a life of sin and guilty pleasure - but shows his punishment as having to live, well, like us. Having been along for Henry's wild ride, it raises a sly and troubling question for us as we leave the theater: are we in purgatory too? As Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote, "hell is other people." In other words, hell is us. A life of pleasure and power without consequence is an illusion, but the alternative is that we're all in "witness protection," with no exit.

Further breaking the formula mold, Henry, our "hero" is actively and aggressively bad from the first frame, desperate to please the mobsters he idolizes, happy to overlook their hideous violence and lack of humanity. Henry wants to be a big shot from the word go, and never stops wanting that until he is ruined. He starts as amoral, becomes evil, turns "good" only as a way to save his skin, and ends up complaining about it. He is a character who undergoes a rise and a fall, but not an arc. Although we hear and see most of the movie from his point of view, nothing from his childhood persuades us to admire him, other than perhaps to wish we were capable of his cold-blooded ability to seize opportunity, no matter the cost to others.

At the one-hour point comes a reprise of the initial flash-forward. This point, at which Henry, Tommy and Jimmy have just killed and are about to bury a "made" man, Billy Bats, is the shift in the story from fast, good times to a world of unhappy consequences. It is exactly where Henry's dream turns into a nightmare. Just as Billy's still-live body kicks in the trunk of Henry's car, an unwelcome reminder, and just as killing Billy is Tommy's undoing, Henry's life after this point is a sequence of hauntings and reprisals.
He starts to fool around, leading to Karen's nearly killing him; Tommy shoots the innocent Spider; Henry starts popping pills. Toegether they rough up the wrong guy in Florida and go to jail, where Henry starts dealing, which leads to his eventual ruin. The thrill and energy of the first hour have turned into a downward, self-immolating spiral.

And yet, nothing in it really gives us a sense that Henry has regrets or that he's changing his outlook on life; only that things have gotten out of control. If he could get back to where he had been, on top of the good life, he'd go for it in a second. The story ends with Henry's (and Paulie's and Jimmy's) arrest on drug charges, and Henry's recognition of the fact that he must turn on his mob, or die. But it's not because he realizes it's the right thing to do, only the necessary thing, as it always has been. There is no transitional or even epiphanic moment. One clearly senses that, if only he had the chance, he'd gladly go back to being a mobster, killings, torturings, greaseball stuff and all. This is not a character we like - but he is fascinating to watch - which raises the question: why? Sure, he's glib and handsome. But that isn't the reason.

There are other significant divergences from formula structure. As mentioned, we see most of the movie from Henry's autobiographical, narrative point of view. But when we meet Karen (at the half-hour mark), we suddenly and almost shockingly switch to her narrative voice. And then, although Karen's narration is used again once or twice more, the story reverts almost exclusively to Henry's point of view. This is punctuated and reinforced when at the end he actually turns to the camera in the middle of a supposed court proceeding, breaks the "fourth wall" and gives his voice-over on camera. The early interjection of a different point of view served the purpose of adding a different perspective on Henry - which largely agrees with and therefore reinforces his own - but also serves to disorient the audience, to throw us off balance, even as Henry himself is going to be thrown off balance a few minutes later. And of course Karen is as flawed as he is, from her sexual thrill at seeing him pistol-whip another man nearly to death, to her unselfconscious enjoyment of Henry's money and fame.

In a climactic sequence, where Henry returns home to find that Karen has flushed his cocaine stash, he breaks down and weeps for the very first time. But the scene is one of irony, not character arc. He shows his vulnerability and hugs Karen (in the corner of their atrociously decorated home), but the scene is cold and distant - he is weeping over lost drugs, out of self-pity, over an impending ruin that he all too richly deserves. We can feel more passion and empathy for even villains like Michael Corleone, because on some level we understand their Faustian bargain. Here we aren't allowed to empathize.

The court sequence mentioned above is of a different style than the rest of the film - it has an almost quasi-documentary feel. The devices of freeze-frame and date cards are interspersed at crucial moments and, as with the introduction of Karen's POV, this is new and jarring, playing against the actual banality of what is happening in the scenes.

The camera work brilliantly moves with this story pattern of smooth rise, chaotic fall and banal conclusion. The famous fluid master of Henry introducing Karen to the Copa, starting out in the street and finishing inside with Henny Youngman, is one of the greatest single takes in film history. Its confidence and continuity contrast startlingly with the heavily edited, nervous, unbalanced shots and cuts as the film nears the end, finally coming to rest in stable, oppressively flat compositions. The variety and virtuosity of the camera work calls attention to itself - it is commenting on Henry as much as he is commenting about himself.

What makes all this so daring, unlike, say, Brian de Palma's Scarface, where we have an seemingly similar story pattern, is that the whole film has been constructed not from an objective, external point of view, but from an intimate and apparently sympathetic point of view - his own. And his point of view remains the same: regular people are suckers. His hell is having to be one of them. One of us.

And that, it seems to me, is the source of our fascination with him. No one wants to be like Henry, a degenerate who befriends the Tommys and Jimmys of the world; or - trapped in our suburban, normal, restrictively moral lives - do we in fact want to be like him after all? At least while he was still living out our dark fantasies - before he became one of us?

This is a film that lures us in and smacks us down. It offers no easy answers, just uneasy alternatives. We are seduced into a first-person identification with someone we cannot help but condemn. Now, at a time when filmmakers are rediscovering the newly re-released treasures of film noir, playing with anti-plot endings, fragmented narratives, and dissociative points of view to explore and reflect a world that more and more seems to deny us the illusions of coherence and simple answers - or formula plotlines - Goodfellas provides a multi-layered, skillful example of how to break the mold and get it right.

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