If pressed, gun to my head, to name Martin Scorsese’s greatest film to-date, I’d probably say Goodfellas. There’s something both familiar and unique about the film as it stands in the director’s oeuvre. It has the stark realism of some of his earlier efforts like Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but at the same time it plays with elements of expressive style, the subjective view of specific characters or a specific subset of people as does Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Aviator, Cape Fear, Shutter Island, and Bringing Out The Dead.
This first grouping of films utilizes an objective perspective. It presents events as they are and removes morality from their depiction, leaving it up to us in the audience to instill such things. In the latter grouping, the perspective becomes subjective, untrustworthy, almost hallucinatory, or otherwise dreamlike. It becomes a portal into the depicted world, not just a reflection of it.
Goodfellas balances both these perspectives: it objectively, almost in a documentary-like style, presents the world of organized crime at a particular point in our country’s history, and at the same time it presents the story of an individual, Henry Hill, from his own, increasingly-warped and unreliable perspective. Henry Hill’s story is the lucid dream inside the facts, it is an interpretation of events rather than just events themselves.
For a more concrete examination of this topic, enjoy the following video from Storytellers that looks at how Scorsese doesn’t just use both realism and expressive style, he combines them into a hybrid perspective that makes Goodfellas so unique and successful. This is a fascinating approach to a near-perfect film and the director in general, so fans are going to want to make time to watch.