Let's get one thing straight right up front: Henry Hill is not a good guy.
Henry is an antihero who really pushes the meaning of the word "hero." Still, he's the audience's moral compass. Granted, the company he keeps sets the morality bar pretty low. "His mild shock at every pointless murder feels like moral outrage in the mobster world," notes author Robin Russin. He pukes when he's digging up Billy Batts' corpse—what a sensitive guy. He makes dinner for his disabled brother—a sweetheart. In other words, because he's surrounded by murderous sociopaths, Henry doesn't look so bad. He's like the prettiest blobfish at the deep sea prom.
Henry's lack of regret at the end of the movie cements his antihero status. Does he lament his life of crime? Hardly. Is he all choked up about ratting on his friends? Nope. Henry just feels bad for Henry. He's supremely ticked about having to enter the Witness Protection Program and leave his extravagant, baller lifestyle behind.
Unlike most heroes—anti or traditional—Henry doesn't have any sort of epiphany. "He has no change of heart, except that he's bitter about having fallen," explains director Martin Scorsese. He just wants his old life back:
HENRY: We ran everything … Everything was for the taking. And now, it's all over. And that's the hardest part.
He doesn't feel guilt over his sins; he feels anger about being exiled to Schnook City.
In spite of his deep flaws, Henry remains likable. We're inside his head for two and a half hours, and this gives us a feeling of connection to the guy. Just a low-level wannabe compared to the savagely violent guys around him, he doesn't look so bad. "He's wormy … and yet somehow sympathetic," muses The Atlantic's David Sims.
And here's why: for starters, you first get to know Henry as a kid. He's wide-eyed and innocent (kind of), and you can practically feel through your flat screen his excitement about the cabstand and finding a place to belong:
HENRY: I was the luckiest kid in the world. I could go anywhere. I could do anything. I knew everybody, and everybody knew me ... I was part of something. I belonged. I was treated like a grown-up. Every day, I was learning to score. A dollar here. A dollar there. I was living a fantasy.
It's just like when you made the JV basketball team, and you knew your teammates would be your compadres for life—you know, except with hijackings instead of inbounds plays. "Henry does not grow up to be a nice man, but, because of the way Scorsese has structured the early portions of the film, we remain sympathetic to him throughout," explains film critic James Berardinelli. He's our man on the inside, our tour guide through mobland.
Second, Henry wants what we all want: a fat bank account. Or, put another, more highfalutin way, economic security. The way Henry sees it, he's just a dude in pursuit of the American Dream, and Karen agrees. "None of it seemed like crime," she explains. "It was more like Henry was enterprising … Our husbands weren't brain surgeons; they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners."
Of course, there were loads of other, totally law-abiding ways that Henry and his crew could make a buck. But what would be the point?
HENRY: For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls.
The point we're making here is that Henry's ambition isn't exactly endearing, but it's understandable. You can fault him for being a crook, but you can't fault him for lusting after financial stability. At least, not to his face. At the end of the day, Henry Hill is still a bad dude who could have your legs broken.
In the words of the great American poet Britney Spears, Karen Hill is not that innocent. Sure, she may start out all naïve, easily impressed by Henry's ability to dish out $20 bills left and right, but it's not long before she's completely consumed by her darling hubby's criminal activities.
So, how does a nice girl like Karen get caught up in a life of crime? In a word, money. Karen is willing to turn a blind eye to Henry and his crew's shady dealings because it pays for her comfy lifestyle. When she wants to go shopping, she doesn't use her own money. She doesn't even ask Henry for a specific dollar amount, like 50 bucks to buy a new Bass-O-Matic. Instead, she holds up her fingers with a smile, indicating how fat a stack she wants.
Karen isn't all about the Benjamins, though. By her own admission, she's equally turned on by Henry's power:
KAREN: 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.
Being Henry's girl, Karen feels above it all. She's powerful by association. Pretty soon, the life of a mob wife starts to seem routine:
KAREN: After a while, it got to be all normal. […] We were all so very close. I mean, there were never any outsiders around. Absolutely never. And being together all the time made everything seem all the more normal.
We'd call that losing perspective.
Forget Jimmy and Tommy. Karen is the most loyal member of Henry's posse. She may be on the payroll, but—first and foremost—she's his wife. She's the one who serves coffee when the cops come a-knockin' with search warrants. She's the one who takes care of their daughters. She's the one who sneaks contraband into prison in a puffy coat. She's the one who flushes the evidence. She's the one who agrees to never see her parents again and move to Nowhere, USA, with her man.
In short, Karen is Henry's backbone. She's proud of her husband's ambition:
KAREN: 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. Our husbands weren't brain surgeons; they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.
Is she rationalizing away Henry's law-breaking line of work here? You betcha. But, ultimately, Karen loves Henry in a way that Paulie, Jimmy, and Tommy never approach.
It's fitting, then, that Karen is more willing to overlook Henry's violent criminal activities than his infidelities. When she gets wind of Janice, that's when Karen's feistiness—that same nerve that initially captivated Henry—hits its peak. She goes to Janice's apartment and scares the crap out of her. Hijacked trucks and murdered mobsters are one thing, but when Karen's heart and pride are on the line, things get personal:
KAREN: Something's going on! ... I look in your face, and I know that you're lying ... Get out of my life! ... You're a lousy bastard ... Go to your ready-made whores. That's all you're good for. Get out of my life. I can't stand you.
But, even as she's holding a gun in his face, she knows she can't leave him. She doesn't want to.
Here's the thing, though: Janice, and even Sandy, aren't Karen's major competition. Henry isn't kidding when he tells Karen—and the gun she's holding in his face—that she's the only gal for him. The problem, for Karen, is that Henry's number-one honey is the indulgent mafia lifestyle. He digs it even more than she does, and he loves it even more than he loves her. She may see herself as Henry's ride-or-die, literally, but Henry's real marriage is to the mob. 'Til death do they part.
Any time there's tension in Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito is there, front and center, probably blowing his top and murdering somebody.
Tommy is hot-tempered, frightening, and explosive. It seems anything can set him off. When Henry tells him he's funny, Tommy goes berserk—first on Henry as an uncomfortable joke and then on the restaurant staff for real, beating the snot out of Sonny.
But Sonny gets off easy. When Billy Batts antagonizes Tommy by bringing up his less-than-illustrious past as a shoeshine boy, Tommy straight up loses it and kills Batts. Similarly, when Spider mishears Tommy's drink order at a card game, Tommy shoots him in the foot. Later, when a limping Spider has the nerve to stand up to Tommy, Tommy brings down a rain of bullets and flushes the Spider out. To say Tommy is a loose cannon would be an understatement the size of North Dakota.
Ultimately, Tommy is the mafia's psychotic, foul-mouthed mascot. You know, like the San Diego Chicken, but with a gun and no moral code. With his ruthlessness and unpredictability, Tommy is the human embodiment of the mafia lifestyle. One day, you're in; the next day, you're out.
As long as Tommy plays by the mob's rules and upholds their customs, his crazy-pants behavior goes unchecked. "Tommy's a bad seed," Paulie tells Sonny when the battered restaurant owner appeals for help. "What am I supposed to do? Shoot him?" His family may be less than thrilled with Tommy's erratic behavior, to say the least, but he's still one of their own.
All bets are off, though, when Tommy whacks Batts. Killing a made man—a fully ordained member of a mafia family—is a major no-no. When Tommy gets murdered in retaliation, Jimmy and Henry may be super bummed, but they also know full well that there's not a darn thing they can do about it. As Tommy's story shows, a rule is a rule, even in mobland, and breaking the family's code of conduct will land you 6 feet under.
Pop quiz: if you could pick anybody other than your own dad to be your proud papa, whom would you pick? Personally, we'd go with Danny Tanner. The Full House patriarch has a cool TV talk-show job, which means we'd get to meet every celebrity that passed through Wake Up, San Francisco. And he's a total neat freak, which means we'd never have to make our own bed.
But, enough about us.
Henry learns from a young age that Paul "Paulie" Cicero is "the boss over everybody in the neighborhood." He picks Paulie to be his surrogate father. It's a solid choice, provided you can overlook the fact that Paulie is a mob boss who can have anybody that gets on his bad side whacked at will. Outwardly, Paulie is cool, calm, and collected. Unlike Henry's real dad, Paulie is not easily riled up. He hates conferences and commotion, and he even refuses to talk on the phone.
He's also super reliable. Hundreds of guys depend on Paulie for their livelihood, and, as long as they don't break the mob's code of conduct, he's got their backs. Big time. You get the feeling that if Henry joined the JV hockey team in between parking Cadillacs, Paulie would never miss a face-off. (And, if somebody checked Henry too hard into the boards, Paulie would have their legs broken.)
That's why it's so devastating when Henry lies to Paulie about his shady side business in the drug world. As the head of a mafia family, Paulie may be a thoroughly bad dude, but he's always done right by Henry. He basically adopts Henry when he starts working at the cabstand and clashing with his own father. Henry's betrayal of Paulie ranks right up there with Lando duping Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
Paulie and Henry's father-son bond is also why Henry takes it so hard when Paulie hands him a wad of cash and turns his back on him. "Thirty-two hundred bucks," Henry grouses. "That's what he gave me. Thirty-two hundred bucks for a lifetime. It wasn't even enough to pay for the coffin." Henry feels that Paulie owes him more, not just for his life of crime, but because he's his de facto son. Hey, Henry: your sense of entitlement is showing.
Ultimately, and in spite of his vicious profession, Paulie is a sympathetic character. He's not a hothead like Tommy. He's not a heavy like Jimmy. And, on the whole, he's good to his ungrateful surrogate son, Henry. So when Henry identifies him in court, sentencing Paulie to die in the slammer like Gribbs—the fate Paulie feared most—it stings like a pot of gravy to the face.
What's in a name? If you're Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, not much. There's nothing gentlemanly about the way Jimmy operates.
If the mafia were a large corporation—let's call them Whacks "R" Us—Jimmy would always be middle management. Since he's Irish, he can never be a made man. He'll forever be a street-level soldier, desperate to impress the higher-ups but with no chance for promotion. Over the course of the movie, the only thing about Jimmy that changes is his graying hair.
So, if Jimmy can't be the boss, what can he do? He can steal everything in sight. "What Jimmy really loved to do, what he really loved to do was steal," Henry tells us as a means of introduction. "I mean, he actually enjoyed it. Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies." Jimmy was the mastermind behind the Lufthansa robbery, and he killed everyone involved so the authorities couldn't trace the robbery back to him.
Jimmy embodies the mob's economic ambition. If he wants something, he takes it. If he does you a favor or a job, you pay him. If he tells you to keep your mouth shut and lay low, you slap some duct tape over your yapper and hide out in your bedroom. And if you don't? Well, just ask Johnny Roastbeef and Frank.
If Karen views Henry and Jimmy's less-than-legal line of business as just the hustle of a couple of hardworking blue-collar guys trying to make a buck, how Jimmy sees things is murkier. But, one thing is clear: Jimmy never met a truck he couldn't hijack, a plane he couldn't steal, or a debtor he couldn't whack, and he doesn't feel a drop of guilt about any of it.
Henry ratted on Jimmy, sending him to prison for 20-to-life. Dream over.