Gangs of New York (2002)
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz
Gangs of New York was released at a time when I was probably watching Martin Scorsese movies more regularly than at any other time in my life, but for some reason I didn’t see it in the theaters. In fact, I didn’t see Gangs of New York until it was already a couple of years old and I purchased a used copy of it on DVD at the Exchange in Pittsburgh, in 2005. In high school, I gained a strong affinity for Scorsese’s cinema, but I largely only skimmed the surface. I watched Taxi Driver and Goodfellas obsessively, and Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Casino were on a list of movies that I professed to admire but hadn’t watched closely yet, but the rest of Scorsese’s deep filmography remained an unknown to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to see Gangs of New York in the theater when it was released, since it didn’t share obvious affinities with Scorsese’s crime and mafia related output, or maybe I was just scared off by the film’s daunting run time, or maybe I just didn’t have any friends who were interested in seeing it. Whatever the reason, I never saw Gangs of New York on a big screen, and though it’s become a movie that I like quite a bit, I’m disappointed that I robbed myself of the opportunity to experience its larger-than-life sets and set pieces in a theater environment. Gangs of New York is often thought of as a lesser entry into Scorsese’s filmography, despite it receiving a slew of award nominations and decent critical acclaim upon its release, and I can’t really argue that as a movie it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Scorsese’s best work. In spite of its flaws, however, Gangs of New York is still a big, engaging, and entertaining movie, and one that seems to have gained in importance and relevance in light of current societal realities in America.
Based on a historical recounting of the history of New York City and the gangs, both street gangs and political gangs, that ran it in the mid-19th century, Gangs of New York is a tale of the savage and brutal mechanics behind the development of one of the greatest cities in the world. The film explores New York’s Five Points neighborhood through the eyes of Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant who witnessed his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), die at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) in a brutal gang fight when he was just a boy. Amsterdam spent his adolescence in a reform home, but when he is a young man he returns to the Five Points, sworn to avenge his father’s death. In order to do so, Amsterdam gains Bill’s trust and becomes his close ally, all the while planning to one day turn on Bill. Through his relationship with Bill, Amsterdam is introduced to the power structures and the powerful men that run New York City, and he learns that Bill may be the most powerful of them all, holding politicians, police, and the people of the Five Points in his tightly clenched fist. Amsterdam gains power and notoriety through his association with Bill and he becomes something of a celebrity figure in the Five Points, seen as an up-and-comer in the power structure of the neighborhood. The two enemies share an uneasy alliance through much of the film, but when Bill discovers Amsterdam’s true identity, they must square off in bloody combat, their personal vendetta backlit by the raging fires of the infamous New York City draft riots of 1863.
This is an obvious oversimplification of the plot of Gangs of New York, but as I mentioned before, the movie is a sprawling epic that contains multiple subplots and diversions, many of which are ancillary to the story of Amsterdam and Bill, but which give the film incredible richness and depth. While I’ve heard some people say that they feel that Gangs of New York doesn’t justify its lengthy runtime, or that the romantic subplot between Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz’s female pickpocket, Jenny, is unwarranted and unnecessary, I can largely forgive the movie its indulgences. Gangs of New York is a historical epic, and, as such, it should be expected to be in-depth, dense, and bombastic, and Scorsese does a masterful job of balancing great action, suspense and intrigue, and human interest, all while telling a compelling tale about the roots of America and Americanism. The Five Points of the film is alive and vibrant, with sets built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta studios standing in for the 19th century streets of New York City. The camera navigates these sets and streets with aplomb, capturing nooks and crevices of society otherwise unnoticed, bringing them to life with Scorsese’s typical visual acumen and virtuosic style.
Small moments and more intimate scenes in the film allow Scorsese to really show off some of his trademark tracking shots and his mastery of setting and lighting, such as the absolutely gorgeous candlelit dance scene in which Jenny and Amsterdam finally submit to their obvious initial attraction to one another. The camera becomes a character in the scene, perfectly partnering with the twirling couples, moving in and out of the crowd on a dolly, and capturing the woozy, off-kilter nature of a rare night of revelry and respite for the tired and oppressed working class citizens of the Five Points. Though it might not be the most integral scene to furthering the film’s primary plotlines, it’s an essential break for the characters and for the audience, and it’s a moment of pure cinematic beauty.
The most obvious and immediate example of Scorsese’s visual genius in Gangs of New York is on display right from the film’s outset. The film opens with a lengthy tracking sequence that introduces most of the film’s principal characters, as well as the world that the film depicts, one that is defined by might and cunning, and sheer force of will. The shot follows Priest Vallon and a very young Amsterdam as they prepare for a bloody battle between the gang of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, led by Vallon, and a xenophobic, Nativist gang led by Bill the Butcher. Though it isn’t constructed as a single tracking shot, like some of Scorsese’s most famous sequences, the camera moves along with the boy and his father, panning and tracking to pick out the faces of important supporting characters who will fight alongside Vallon. The edits are well placed, and concealed somewhat by useful sound/image matching with the martial drum and fife tune underscoring the scene. Intensity builds as Scorsese introduces whip pans and cut-aways into the montage, picking out the grim faces and fearsome homemade weapons wielded by the Dead Rabbits as they march out of their subterranean base of operations. Fires burn alongside the stone walls and characters engage in strange, ritualistic dances, giving the setting an otherworldly feeling. As Vallon and his army emerge from the caves, the camera tilts up, revealing them to be beneath a bustling common house peopled by the denizens of the Five Points: degenerates, outcasts, and thieves, all living and existing on top of one another in a constant state of chaos and squalor. When the door is burst open and the camera tracks outside of the building, revealing an empty, snowy courtyard, the music drops from the soundtrack entirely and the audience is left on seat’s edge, anticipating the battle to come. The battle is a thing of violent beauty, but it is this initial sequence that truly expresses the efficiency of Scorsese’s visual language. He reveals a distinctive setting, implies character relationships, and the stakes of the cinematic universe into which the audience has been dropped, all through the use of music, montage, and camera movement in just a few short moments. It’s a sequence that can stand up to nearly in in Scorsese’s long and accomplished body of work.
The film’s veracity and impact is also benefited by the incredible cast that was assembled to portray the residents of the Five Points. Obviously the film’s leads are accomplished and noteworthy, but the depth of this ensemble cast is one of Gangs of New York’s biggest strengths. Great actors such as John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson all show up in secondary roles. Broadbent’s Boss Tweed is appropriately corrupt and despicable, while Reilly takes a rare turn as an unlikable character. He does bring a level of complexity to the character of Happy Jack, who began the film standing beside Priest Vallon but who becomes a police officer, effectively working to support Bill’s stranglehold over the Five Points, as do many of the former Dead Rabbits, putting their own personal survival before their allegiances to their dead leader. Gleeson is McGloin, and though he begins the film as a mercenary, he proves to be one of the few characters who remains loyal to the ideals of the Dead Rabbits and of dignity for immigrants, but Gleeson plays him as a shady background character, potentially duplicitous, until his true nature is revealed late in the film. Though his performance is incredibly brief, with his character dying in the film’s first scene, Neeson brings a gravitas to his portrayal of Priest Vallon that lends a credence to his son’s and others’ dedication to the preservation of his character’s ideals. These secondary roles all work to create a rich tapestry of characters inhabiting the Five Points, giving the neighborhood of the film life and vigor.
Of course, for all the important work that the film’s supporting cast do, their performances are all, naturally, overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s iconic and memorable portrayal of the cruel, powerful Bill Cutting. By now, Day-Lewis is widely recognized as one of the best actors of his, or any, generation, and though he had been turning in brilliant performances for over a decade by the time he starred in Gangs of New York, I think that it was this performance that largely cemented his status as an icon. I had seen My Left Foot and The Crucible in high school, but it was Day-Lewis’s work in creating the character of Bill the Butcher that truly signaled his greatness to me. Stories abound of the actor’s persistence to maintain character during a shoot, adhering to the mannerisms, accents, and affectations of his roles at all hours of the day, and that dedication shines through in every second of screen time that he has in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis steals every scene that he’s in, chewing the scenery and spitting verbose prose in an unmistakable and unforgettable proto-New York City accent. He seethes and rages, he cajoles and charms, and all the while he maintains a fearsome physical presence that hints at his character’s capacity for lethal violence. Bill the Butcher is an all-time great villain, and it’s impossible to imagine him being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis breathes life and menace into the character, achieving a total transformation that would prefigure the all-consuming performances that he would turn in later in his career. Though his xenophobic and racist rhetoric and penchant for abuse and violence are abhorrent, Bill the Butcher’s charms make him an irresistible villain, if not a relatable figure. A lesser actor might not have tapped into the complexity of Bill Cutting, playing him as either purely evil or as a grandstanding raconteur, but the devil is in the details, and Day-Lewis creates a nuanced, attractive devil out of a performance dominated by attention to minutiae.
Understandably, DiCaprio and Diaz don’t fare as well in the shadow of the powerhouse performance that Day-Lewis turns in. Though he provides a serviceable performance as Amsterdam, DiCaprio was still attempting to grow into more adult roles after spending much of the 1990s firmly entrenched as America’s teen heartthrob. His chops would improve in later collaborations with Scorsese and as he became more comfortable with his own artistic voice, but DiCaprio in Gangs of New York is still a bit raw, and his acting lacks a sense of naturalism. For whatever reason, I’ve also felt that DiCaprio’s vocal cadence isn’t suitable to lengthy, expository voiceover tracks, and Gangs of New York relies heavily on his narration. This could be a knock against Scorsese, as well, whose trademark voiceover narration I often find well done despite my overall distaste for the technique as a storytelling device, but in Gangs of New York it largely feels unnecessary and overwritten.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Diaz as the film’s love interest and female lead, but I actually think that she does a fine job. She has a natural wryness to her star persona that plays well with Jenny’s penchant for petty crime and her playful courtship of Amsterdam, and Diaz is also more than effective when searching out the emotional depths of the character. Though she doesn’t often shine in the movie, she makes the most of her moments in the film, and isn’t given as much material to work with as either of the male leads in building up her character. Jenny feels more like a glorified supporting character than a third co-lead, through no real fault of Diaz’s. I think that she and DiCaprio acquit themselves fairly admirably, but it would be impossible for either of these young actors to really emerge as a standout in a movie that is so thoroughly dominated by Day-Lewis.
Gangs of New York isn’t a movie that I get to rewatch very often, given my penchant for only really liking to watch movies in a single sitting, and its long runtime frequently being prohibitive of that practice. I think I’ve probably seen it four times, including watching it on the Fourth of July in preparation to write this post, and it has always struck me as a film that speaks to Scorsese’s ongoing later-career interest in depicting how powerful men and their belief systems have formed the idea of Americanness. These themes stretch back to his crime films like Goodfellas and Casino, which both explicitly position themselves as commentaries on the shape of the American dream, but I think that it becomes even more explicit in films like Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think that it’s fairly clear from his cinematic output that Scorsese has a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, choosing, as he does, to highlight the seedier and more vicious elements of the human existence. In later films, he begins to expand that line of thinking out to examinations of American society and history, as a whole, and his outlook is no more favorable. In Gangs of New York, the very idea of Americanness is at the heart of the central conflict, with Vallon and the rest of the film’s immigrants attempting to stake their claim to a new identity in their chosen home against the wishes of Nativists like Bill the Butcher. This conflict is all set against the backdrop of the Civil War, a conflict that challenged the very notion of a national character for the young United States of America, and the film sees several characters, most prominently Bill, make impassioned speeches against the Union cause and against the emancipation of African-American slaves. Bill the Butcher as the film’s central character and his catalytic force in the narrative embodies and expresses these most savage and base fears and prejudices and the New York City that he attempts to influence and form in his image is a place that is heavily informed by his xenophobia, racism, and authoritarian nature. I think that Scorsese would posit that these virtues are, in many ways, at the core of the history of the American nation.
It isn’t difficult to see why watching this film on Independence Day felt, for me, ironic, and why it also seems so totally prescient in 2018. Many of the struggles that are depicted in the film seem to be emerging as major narratives in the ongoing discussion of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. First and foremost, the unambiguous xenophobia and racism expressed by Bill and the film’s other Nativist characters has persisted for centuries in America, and has now emerged as a cornerstone in major mainstream political discourse. The face of immigration has certainly changed over the 150 years since the events depicted in Gangs of New York, but the conversation pertaining to closing borders to ensure the “purity” of the American character is exactly the same, and is couched in the same racist and exclusionary rhetoric that is on display in the film. The irony of a group of white, Anglo- settlers calling themselves Native to the Americas is an exclusionary argument still in use today that misses the point that anyone who is non-Indigenous can’t claim to have a birthright to Americanness, but it is the argument that forms the central basis of a form of economic and social White Supremacy that are hard baked into the American character. The roots of this attitude extend much further into history than the period depicted in Gangs of New York, but it is not by accident that Scorsese has selected a period of fraught racial turmoil to examine the formations of the American identity.
The film also depicts the corruption and vice that were central to New York City’s civic governance by featuring Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall political machine, and their ties to a criminal underworld that helped to prop up their status and ensure their political and social dominance. Throughout human history a desire for power and status has led humans to corruption and to choose strange allies. New York City in the mid-19th century certainly wasn’t the first or last locality to open itself up to this sort of political corruption, but the levels of civic betrayal and political ruthlessness and operational incompetence on display in the film, and which are apparently factually accurate, are astounding. The film depicts volunteer fire departments run by warring civic political factions that get so wrapped up in preventing each other from gaining credit for putting out the fire that they allow a building to burn to the ground. This level of ineptitude and hubris could only bring to mind the current political landscape in America, where corruption and deceit seem to be the order of the day, and service to the electorate is an unfortunate hindrance to the acquisition of capital at their expense. In the Super-PAC and special interest era of American politics, it feels more than ever that politicians and corporate structures are inextricably wedded in a marriage that aims to keep the non-elite from gaining any political power or capital. Though the disenfranchisement and squalor shown in the Five Points is extreme, the economic striation currently on display in America is not far off from that reality. Though Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen the levels of blatant graft and corruption that American politics have descended to barely 15 years after the film’s release, there’s no denying the parallels the film’s gilded era political machinations have to today’s political circus.
Gangs of New York probably doesn’t rate up with the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography, but it does mark an important shift in his focus at the beginning of the 21st century and a return to form after a couple of less-than-great efforts to close out the 20th century. It’s a film that has largely been remembered as a mixed bag defined by an all-time great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, but I think that it offers much more than that for modern viewers. Cinematically, it offers some of Scorsese’s most painterly compositions, and it’s obviously a deep well of his signature visual style, plus it also features one of the earliest performances from adult Leonardo DiCaprio that pointed towards the future quality of his performances. Socially and culturally, it’s an important film that I think will remain relevant as long as Americanness is so readily defined along lines of race and class. It’s a movie that seeks to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” and it depicts the deadly struggle on many sides to secure the right to uphold the proper definition of Americanness. This is still a debate that rages on today, perhaps even more fiercely than it has in previous eras, and for that reason alone watching Gangs of New York is a must in 2018.