Another stylish Martin Scorsese classic about a bunch of horrible people you can’t help but be fascinated by.
It’s based on a true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Sicilian born in Brooklyn who started working for the Mob as a kid in 1950s and stayed on until involvement in drug trade got him into trouble with his employers. As a teenager, Hill is utterly besotted with the tough guys of his neighbourhood, envying their swagger, confidence and freedom from the usual paycheck-to-paycheck existence, and he wants nothing more than be a gangster himself. At first he runs small errands for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a local don with a deceptively slow, bulky frame; then he rises through the ranks, meeting among others Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro, quite restrained here), a man who gets a kick out of stealing, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who seems like a faintly comical character until he explodes with psychotic rage.
I thought the film bore a few similarities to The Wolf of Wall Street, with the first-person narration, the dynamism, the masterful use of popular music to underline the movie’s dramatic points, and most notably the complete lack of regret or moralising on the part of the main character over his life choices. The movie really gets across the seductive allure of the Mafia life, at least until things go pear-shaped, the characters start to drop dead one by one and the dark side of the lifestyle really comes through.
There’s a secondary narrator in the shape of Karen (Lorraine Bracco) – a Jewish girl who becomes Hill’s wife. At first she’s shocked by the violence that’s a part of her husband’s profession, but then she becomes so absorbed into her new insular social circle that everything becomes normal – the guns, the drugs, the sudden deaths – and the Mafia morals become her own. There’s a great sequence at the start of their courtship where Hill, in one long shot, takes Karen on a night out, past the normal queues, past the kitchens, into a nightclub where everyone important acknowledges him and the headwaiter pulls out a table in front of the stage, just for them.
Spanning almost 30 years and running at two and a half hours, there’s no particular plot as such, though certain strands and actions turn out to have (violent) payoffs in the end. It’s hard to really sympathise with any of the characters and as a viewer I felt rather detached, but you’re pulled into their world nonetheless with the great performances from the cast and Scorsese’s powerful filmmaking. Speaking of violence, this film is a proof that I haven’t yet been totally desensitised – there’s something about the violence in Scorsese films that feels particularly shocking, visceral and brutal. The movie also had some of the most gloriously tasteless nouveau riche home interiors I’ve seen onscreen – even taking into account the time period. No matter how many 70s movies I’ve seen, I haven’t yet been desensitised to the truly awful wallpaper patterns.