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Film Review: Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Gangs of New York is easily the most ambitious film Martin Scorsese has ever made, but also one of his most flawed. The meticulously recreated historical setting of the notorious Five Points slum of mid-19th-Century New York City had fascinated and haunted Scorsese since he first read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book about the criminal underworld of the district in the early 1970s. But it took Scorsese 20 years from his optioning of the book to get the actual film made, and the final product is redolent of his usual technical and metaphorical mastery as well as of the passionate bloat and overwhelming excess of any auteur’s personally meaningful cinematic labour of love.

Gangs kicks off with such cocksure potency that it seems certain to knock the stuffing out of you for its two-and-three-quarter hours running time (which it doesn’t quite accomplish). It’s 1846 in a New York City heaving from unprecedented foreign (especially Irish) immigration, and a ragtag band of warriors assemble in urban caves and tenement bowels and march to war to the half-feral rhythm of fife and drums. Led by the imposing, quasi-clerical Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the Irish Catholic Dead Rabbits gang emerges from its hole-like den into the stark, snowy Paradise Square. Awaiting them is the Nativist gang of William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), who seek to drive this “foreign horde” back into the sea they crossed to arrive there like so many rats. After an exchange of threatening pleasantries, the gangs have at each other in a desperate, ugly, claustrophobic skirmish, staining the snow red with each other’s blood to decide in a primitive manner who gets to call themselves true Americans.

Bill the Butcher, a deft hand with a knife as his nickname implies, kills Vallon in front of his son to seal the Nativists’ triumph. Flash forward almost twenty years to 1862, and this son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), emerges from the Hellgate orphanage on Roosevelt Island as a hard-bitten young adult with revenge on his mind. He tosses the Bible given to him by the priest at the gate into a pond, and Scorsese shows it breaking the surface in poetic slow-motion, an image of apostasy and rejection of religious morality as strong as any in the director’s morally-troubled oeuvre.

Back in the Five Points, Amsterdam gets the lay of the land since his orphaning. Bill has ascended into relative respectability, presiding over the slum from a tavern as he slices off prime cuts of meat for the locals. He’s working with the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall machine run by Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent, feasting on gregarious corruption) to deliver elections and keep a tenuous order in his neighbourhood. Amsterdam finds that most of the Dead Rabbits’ captains have followed Bill’s lead: Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly) is a crooked cop kept in line by Nativist bribes, Walter “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) no longer wields a deadly club, only barber’s scissors, and ex-boxer McGloin (Gary Lewis) has even become Bill’s chief lickspittle.

Amsterdam acclimatizes to the bawdy, dirty, lively world of the Points, gathers followers to his side, carries on a torrid romance with spirited pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and ingratiates himself to Bill in order to get close enough to deliver the fatal blow of vengeance. Their inevitable confrontation dovetails with the cataclysmic Draft Riots of 1863 and is tellingly eclipsed by them; in fact, crowd-dispersing volleys from gunboats in the harbour break up their revisiting of the gang battle that opens the film. A social inertia more inexorable than Old-World sectarian resentments and Know Nothing xenophobia thus carries even the most resistent and stubborn forward into the future, or else leaves their unwilling corpses on the pavement.

Scorsese deserves considerable credit for getting this complex, unsettling vision of a pivotal, little-understood moment in 19th-Century America made. He deserves even more for coaxing the legendarily Method Day-Lewis out of self-imposed retirement as a cobbler in Italy (that’s right, he really is that insufferably pretentious) and allowing him to rip the exquisitely-mounted panorama to shreds as Bill the Butcher. Behind plentiful mustachios and a jaunty top hat, Bill is bountifully, charismatically, eloquently, seductively montrous. Even in his quiet, respectable moments, as when he comments on a lady’s perfume, he’s viciously charming and charmingly vicious. When he toys with Amsterdam, who he knows plans to betray him, during a knife-throwing performance in a Chinese theatre, he’s playful and menacing, all at once.

Unfortunately, DiCaprio is hardly his match, saddled with a patchy little goatee and a well-worked-out County Kerry accent, not to mention a herky-jerky love story of sorts with the misplaced Diaz. Broadbent, Reilly, and especially Gleeson are given much more interesting if underdrawn characters, and one wishes that Scorsese had made his movie more about them instead of the sulky kid on a quest for what is bound to be an unsatisfying revenge.

But Gangs of New York is bursting with such colourful period detail that its unhelpful plot barely matters. Scorsese and his writers embed myriad details from Asbury’s book. Indeed, the film becomes more about its setting and the kaleidoscope of eccentric, dangerous, unfamiliar life that takes place there than anything. We see a great variety of differently-attired gangs and criminals, bareknuckle boxing on barges, a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, competing fire companies slugging each other rather than extinguishing blazes, torchlit dances, even an elephant on the loose during the riots. It’s all true, or at least true enough.

Amidst the eccentric language, diverse characters, and wild swings in quality of artistic expression, two resonant, bravura sequences demonstrate Scorsese’s complicated commentary on American history in Gangs of New York crystallizing into rounded, complete statements. Amsterdam awakes one morning to find Bill seated in a chair facing him, an American flag draped over his shoulders. Bill tells Amsterdam about his father Priest (though he doesn’t know he speaks to the son, and conceives of the young man as a surrogate heir of his own), and how his rival taught him important lessons about manhood and honour through violence. “Civilization is crumbling”, Bill concludes his monologue, understanding the country that is emerging as muddling and even contradicting the proud (if barbaric) principles that he and Priest stood for. Like conservatives of all times (including our own), Bill retreats to the easy comfort of persecuted social martyrdom when faced with the destabilizing uncertainty of progress.

But it’s in a sweeping single shot that a grander critique materializes. Scorsese’s crane-cam follows Irish immigrants as they disembark onto New York’s docks, are made American citizens and then enlisted into the Union Army, then are put onto another ship bound for the southern battlefields of the Civil War that is simultaneously, ominously unloading the coffins of the war dead. It’s a wondrously self-contained image of emerging America as a clockwork machine of exploitation fuelled by easily-discarded human bodies. The building of a modern, prosperous imperial country claimed many victims, Scorsese’s imperfect opus vividly illustrates. Not only those who stood in the way of progress, like Bill the Butcher, but also the hopeful huddled masses yearning for freedom in a land of opportunity.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. January 30, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Good review Ross. A very entertaining movie to watch, however, it does go on long and never seems to know what it wants to be. However, that’s why the cast is such a wonder to just watch, mainly Day-Lewis.

  1. March 1, 2014 at 7:06 am
  2. March 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm
  3. June 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm
  4. October 20, 2015 at 9:58 pm
  5. November 1, 2015 at 4:56 pm

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