A Master and His Embattled Epic; Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
At one point in “Gangs of New York,” rabble-rouser William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting explains to his protége Amsterdam how he’s managed to thrive for decades on the vicious city streets. What drives him, he says, is “the spectacle of fearless acts.” This sums up “Gangs of New York,” which is riveted to the spectacle of fearless battles between ruthless factions driven by ethnic hatred, personal fear, and political rage.
By all accounts, the filming of Martin Scorsese‘s long-awaited epic wasn’t free of its own skirmishes — between a filmmaker determined to protect the integrity of his dream project and a production company (Miramax) that grew increasingly nervous as the budget swelled, shooting went over schedule, and journalists reported behind-the-scenes tension. Some observers took all this, and the subsequent delay of the picture’s release by more than a year, as a sign that “Gangs of New York” was in trouble so severe that even Bill the Butcher couldn’t slice his way out of it. Others noted that Scorsese always likes to take his time, and that the last Leonardo DiCaprio epic dogged by production delays (“Titanic”) didn’t exactly flounder once it reached the screen.
Now the picture is here, and the results are mixed. On the upside, it offers a meticulous portrait of a tumultuous period, treating the bloody Manhattan conflicts of the Civil War era not only as sensational events in their own right, but also as symptoms of social ills — racism, greed, corruption, plutocracy — that continue to infect the American scene. It’s hard to fault Dante Ferretti‘s artful production design, Michael Ballhaus‘s eloquent cinematography, or Thelma Schoonmaker‘s impeccable editing. Although he has become cinema’s foremost chronicler of New York life and lore, Scorsese has never made a film with more historical and political savvy.
What’s missing are the qualities that help Scorsese’s greatest works transcend excitement and expertise alone, delving into depths of the human spirit that few other directors have explored so dauntlessly. The film rarely gets below the callous-covered skin of its grim characters, and it reveals little about the primitive drives that lurk in their darkened hearts. “Gangs of New York” is masterfully crafted, but it’s hardly a Scorsese triumph on the order of New York movies like “Taxi Driver” and “GoodFellas,” or even “The Age of Innocence,” which probed Manhattan history in far more decorous ways.
Many hands worked on the screenplay, written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan from a story by Cocks that was inspired by Herbert Asbury‘s 1928 book of the same title. Despite the historical density and multi-character complexity of its subject, the narrative is fairly straightforward. A little boy watches his father — the fierce Priest Vallon, who leads an Irish street gang called the Dead Rabbits — lose his life at Bill the Butcher’s hands. Fleeing into reform-school exile up the Hudson, the child returns 16 years later as a swaggering youth called Amsterdam, loaded with street-smarts and bent on avenging his father’s death. He impresses Bill enough to be taken under his wing and introduced to the ways and wiles of his gang, rowdy Nativists obsessed with shielding America from the hordes of Irish immigrants driven there by famine. Affection develops between the two men, and Amsterdam finds himself in the difficult position of having to destroy the very man who has taught him how to kill.
The action takes place mainly in the Five Points area of the Lower East Side, clearly one of the most dangerous places in mid-19th century New York, riddled with battles over everything from territory to protection money. The city as a whole is viewed as rampantly chaotic, festering with violence, corruption, racketeering, prostitution, racism, gambling, and other malignancies that have hardly vanished in the succeeding century and a half. “Everyone owes,” Bill the Butcher explains to Amsterdam, “and everyone pays.”
The film combines period spectacle with Scorsese’s longtime predilection for violence, male bonding, and codes of outlaw honor. This makes for powerful sequences, but as often in historical epics, some scenes exist mainly to inject elements of period accuracy and detail. The ultimate clash between Bill’s mob of “native Americans” and Amsterdam’s herd of Dead Rabbits is linked with the outbreak of African-American lynching during the eruption of the infamous city-wide anti-draft riots, for instance; but the intricacy of Scorsese’s montage is more expressive than anything we learn about specific connections among the different events.
“Gangs of New York” is a war movie in many respects, and there’s never long to wait until the next combat scene. If we’re not watching the street gangs hack and clobber one another, we’re viewing barroom brawls, public executions, terriers fighting rats, Bill carving a carcass with sadistic glee, or Amsterdam tousling with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), his pickpocket girlfriend. Most gangland movies derive appeal from depicting the unwritten laws that proverbially exist among thieves, but here it’s every Mick and Paddy for himself. Allegiances are swiftly broken, friendships are almost inevitably betrayed, and family ties survive mainly in the form of ageless vendettas — phenomena Scorsese has long understood, from “Mean Streets” to “GoodFellas” and beyond.
Scorsese is often thought of as a master visual stylist, but he’s often a great director of acting, and “Gangs” finds him in good form here. As young Amsterdam, resurgent star DiCaprio manages to be simultaneously foxy and cherubic, and his characteristic underplaying makes a good contrast with the movie’s overall sweep and amplitude. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher–the Bill Sykes of Lower Manhattan — gives a bravura performance that seems to have taken pointers from the Robert De Niro school of how to play a Scorsese leading man; everything from his vocal articulations to his wicked grin has traces of De Niro’s stamp, which is very odd, since Day-Lewis is an able actor who needs no models to draw on. Cameron Diaz as the cutpurse Jenny is so feistily Irish it hurts. Also in the fray is a first-rate supporting cast including Liam Neeson as Amsterdam’s dad, John C. Reilly as an ill-fated cop, Jim Broadbent as legendary politico William “Boss” Tweed, and numerous others.
Fairly early in the film there’s a marvelous moment when a creepy-looking thug utters an incoherent whine, whereupon Bill the Butcher barks, “Don’t make that noise again, Harvey!” Whatever squabbles broke out between cineaste Scorsese and indie power-broker Harvey Weinstein on the Cinecitta stages where Gangs was shot, the vision on the screen appears to belong to Scorsese alone, for better and for worse. Marked by true grandeur at some points, mere grandiloquence at others, it doesn’t rank with his best achievements, but its finest sequences pack a genuine New York wallop.