Dual Narrators, Episodic Structure
The Dynamic Duo
Sure, narrators are cool. But you know what's even cooler? Two narrators.
Goodfellas' narrative is driven by voice-overs from both Henry and Karen, giving the audience a comprehensive concept of what life in the mob is really like. "That [Henry] narrates his own story—and is later joined by his wife, narrating hers—is crucial to the movie's success," claims Roger Ebert. "This is not an outsider's view, but a point-of-view movie based on nostalgia for the lifestyle." (Source)
There's no "he said, she said" conflict between Henry and Karen; instead, their points of view complement each other. "For us, to live any other way was nuts," Henry explains of his, uh, unique line of work. "To us, those goody-good people who worked s***ty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers." Adds Karen: "After a while, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts." Simply put, Henry and Karen's stories line up like a set of His and Hers towels, creating an all-inclusive portrait of just how decadent and morally twisted life in the mafia can be.
Allowing Henry and Karen to tell their own story also allows them to explain themselves and their often-questionable—and, sometimes, downright deplorable—behavior. Karen hiding Henry's gun may have had you screaming at your TV, for example. But then, she tells us directly, "I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on." Karen fessing up that she knew it was a big red flag, but she just didn't care, makes it harder to be angry at her poor decisions. Hiding your new boyfriend's firearm is still a really, really stupid idea, but her self-awareness is endearing. She's just a young moron in love.
Covering nearly 30 years in Henry's life, Goodfellas is a lengthy flick. But, it doesn't feel that way. The narrative's episodic structure makes Henry's adventures in the mob fly by as it jumps from decade to decade using helpful on-screen time stamps. It's frenetic and exciting, just like Henry's real experience.
Chopping up the narrative into episodes also gives the story space. The narrative starts with a flash-forward before settling into Henry's teenage years in Brooklyn. Characters drop in and out when necessary, just like how people drop in and out of our real lives. The story doesn't chronologically charge from one plot point to the next. Instead, it moves like our memories actually do. It's fragmented and occasionally messy.
The takeaway from Goodfellas' narrative isn't that first, this happened, and then, this happened. Rather, Goodfellas' narrative structure sets the mood and lets the audience experience what life in a 20th century mafia family was really all about.