Putting the "Anti" in Antihero
Let's get one thing straight right up front: Henry Hill is not a good guy.
When you first meet him, he's got a not-quite-dead-yet guy in the trunk of his car. He steals more stuff than Rickey Henderson and the Hamburglar combined. Oh, and he cheats on his wife.
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.
Regrets? He's Had … Well, None
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.
Loving to Hate Him, Hating to Love Him
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.
Bloody Blue Collars
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 s***ty 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.