A dizzying, decade-spanning crime epic, utterly enchanting, immersing the viewer so deeply into Henry Hill’s mindset that it’s genuinely jarring when the film ends and reality comes roaring back in.
While it starts mid-story, in a scene with three gangsters and a problem in a car trunk, bathed in red glow reminiscent of MEAN STREETS, the story is generally linear, charting a great rise and fall. Scorsese insists that such a thing is the archetypal crime story, all the way back to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY – a film he directly references the ending of in the iconic shot of Tommy at the end. But it is the detail that makes this film sing, the level of immersion, the specifics. Frequent freeze-frames are used to capture the mod or mindset of a time, and it seems you’d feel drunk on the film without them, as things move so quickly for all the film’s length that you get as caught up in the gangster lifestyle as Henry does. So what makes things so impressive is that, when past the halfway point and into the ‘fall’ section, none of the humour, wit, or essential tone really changes.
There’s all the difference in the world between the seductive tracking shots early in the film, and the paranoid fast cuts towards the end, but the film always feels completely spawned out of Henry’s mind and worldview, and even at the very end we still feel this, frustratingly so. Henry is so fortunate to escape the many poor fates a gangster can receive, but still resents being ‘normal’.
The great appeal of the mafia to Henry wasn’t just the apparent lack of consequences, but the great family of it all. All this is communicated through so many specific choices, the camera movements, the music, and most of all the editing that spins such a coherent and captivating story out of so much information, presented relentlessly. It’s an enormous achievement, Scorsese at his most commanding in how immersive experience he crafted at this point. Four and a half cartons of cigarettes, and some razor-thin garlic.