If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.
If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.
Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.
The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.
(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)
Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.
In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.
Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.
This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.
If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.
I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .
Final Score: A