Reviewed by Sam Hatch
This side of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese hasn't garnered much overt praise from either critics or audiences. Casino was enjoyable, yet not considered as major an effort as the aforementioned film. Kundun was a minor critical success, but Bringing Out the Dead was saddled with expectations that it be Taxi Driver with Ambulances. That said, I found the latter to be a hauntingly beautiful film, but it also had the misfortune of coming out against modern classics American Beauty and Fight Club. So needless to say, his newest film Gangs of New York arrived in cinemas with plenty of external baggage. Much has been made of the film's history, and some were left wondering if it was sitting on a shelf for so long because it was just no good. Others were demanding it be a stunning, sprawling masterpiece, so it felt doomed to disappoint right out of the gate.
I may be in the minority, but I do feel it to be a major work by a great director who is too often considered past his prime. Gangs of New York smartly opens with a visual reference to one of the director's early short films (The Big Shave) as Liam Neeson's ‘Priest' Vallon cuts himself with a shaving razor, only to hand the implement to his young son and implore him to leave the blood on the blade. Vallon is the leader of the Irish Catholic gang The Dead Rabbits, and he's holed up in a cavern deep under the streets of New York. The scene then progresses with a rousing tracking shot following the numerous gang members as they sharpen their crude weapons, all to the sound of drums and a strangely atonal penny whistle. As the crowd begins the ascent to the street side level (like a reverse on Dante's Inferno, it feels as though they're rising to the depths of hell) we're treated to a tour of their environs, eventually revealing a monstrous multi-level wood and rope superstructure hidden behind the simple street side façade. It shows the lives of the city off of the streets, behind its doors and under its floorboards. Unlike the proper architecture of the uptown abodes, Five Points was cobbled together from stables and rickety structures. Often they were haphazardly joined, creating a series of broken structures hosting an overpopulated timber labyrinth within.
When the Dead Rabbits finally emerge into the streets, we meet the dilapidated mess of New York's Five Points district, a landfill turned buggy, swampy nightmare that eventually became the home of the so-called downtrodden, be they Black or of Irish descent. Vallon's team gathers with numerous other local gangs with silly names like The Plug Uglies (which reminded me of the rock band The Pug Uglies from the Judge Dredd comics, though I realize I'm probably alone on this one) and The Shirt Tails. Screenwriter Jay Cocks had based the story on the book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, and although some of its credibility has been challenged (especially the level of violence exhibited), these gangs were true entities in the 1800s. As the story begins they are gathered to battle with the immigrant-hating Nativists who are led by one of the best screen villains to be seen in years, Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill ‘The Butcher' Cutting. Day-Lewis is no stranger to early New York, as his character in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence spent some time on its streets when they were all just wide dirt lanes. Bill ‘The Butcher' is a fascinating creature, a twisted patriot and racist murderer who nonetheless extols the virtues of honorable battle, and loves his enemies more than his closest companions.
Clad in a bizarre getup consisting of a multi-hued sash, a gigantic stovepipe hat with a huge blue ribbon, and what looks to be some precursor to the hairnet, Bill is a ridiculous looking figure that is equally terrifying. His signature mark is his false left eye, which has been replaced by a steel orb etched with an image of an eagle clutching part of the American flag. Day-Lewis has been criticized for merely aping Deniro's speech patters, but there's much more at work here. The man even came out of semi-retirement as a cobbler in Italy to take on the role. And when he takes on a role, watch out. During shooting of The Crucible, he refused to stay in the same cushy hotel as costar Winona Ryder and demanded to help construct the sets with the crew. He never killed anybody while inhabiting Cutting, but was reportedly still a severely edgy fellow on set. Whether or not you give credence to the notion of method acting, it certainly pays dividends in this case, for every move and every word spoken by The Butcher is fascinating.
The opening snow-covered battleground becomes stained red (as expected from a Scorsese picture), but much of the mayhem is shot in a slow, stylized fashion with numerous disorienting frame rates and an odd musical choice of Peter Gabriel accompanying the fight's orchestral swell with the very modern sounds of electric guitar. I'm not sure if the juxtaposition works as remarkably well as it did in The Last Temptation of Christ (also scored by Gabriel), but the scene still contains moments that are pure Scorsese brilliance, most notably when the camera fixes on varied faces of slain victims and falls stutteringly to the ruddy ground with them. The Dead Rabbits do not fare well in the battle, and Priest Vallon is slain by the Butcher before the eyes of his one and only son. The young Vallon attempts to escape but is eventually taken to the reform school prison aptly titled Hellgate.
The film then jumps sixteen years and reunites us with a grown Vallon (who now calls himself ‘Amsterdam') who is finally released from his captivity with the Holy Bible grasped firmly in hand. A Bible that he immediately tosses into the nearby river, cementing his image as a very serious dude indeed. Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam is like the evil twin brother of his character Jack Dawson from Titanic (or perhaps he's Jack's deadbeat dad), and as he returns to his childhood home of Five Points, it's with murder in his heart.
Thus begins one of the most interesting segments of the film, at least for a historically deprived lad such as myself. American History in my school was all presented in a very stale fashion, with no mention of any of the events in this film, so it was a delight to experience all of this forbidden information and see it brought to such vivid life. Bill the Butcher is now the unrivaled leader of the neighborhood (having banned The Dead Rabbits from ever returning as a gang). He is reintroduced in stunning fashion, hobbling along the streets in yet another garish outfit under the explosions of fireworks (celebrating Lincoln's emancipation proclamation) that cast a hellish, sanguine glow on the streets.
Bill teams up with Jim Broadbent's Boss Tweed, the leader of the democratic group Tammany Hall, and who is also generally considered to be the most corrupt politician of all time. Bill's Nativists are of great use to the man who is reluctant to use the police for muscle work, as the law must appear to be upheld, ‘even while it's being broken'. A wonderful scene follows in which Broadbent's Fire Brigade decides they must fight with a rival amateur gang of firefighters labeled “The Black Joke” rather than actually putting out a burning building. When the fracas has lasted too long to effectively save the structure, they instead turn their attention to the perfectly sound neighboring building, and rush in to loot it while the owner's pleas fall upon deaf ears.
Amsterdam is reunited with Henry Thomas' Johnny, a peer who as a youth had tried to help enable the former boy's escape. As such, he is the only person who knows that the son of Priest Vallon has returned to Five Points. Through this connection Amsterdam worms his way into Bill's company, but doesn't find what he expects. He knows that Bill celebrates the victory over 'The Priest' during a yearly function at a local (and anachronistic) Chinese theater, but Amsterdam finds a portrait of his father within Bill's hangout (dubbed Satan's Circus) and realizes that the villain reveres the man and almost worships him as an idol. Bill claims the spoils of the murder, but appears wearied by the fact that he'll never meet another foe of equal value.
Amsterdam's intensity catches Bill's good eye, and soon enough the lad finds himself part and parcel of The Butcher's organization, which also contains other members who were once loyal to Vallon's cause. Upon hearing the boy's name for the first time, Bill retorts with “Well, I'm New York.” And in a way, he means it. Bill teaches the youngster the art of effective knife play on the corpse of a pig, and Amsterdam helps solve problems with the legality of boxing by proffering the idea of staging bouts on the Hudson river, technically outside of the city's jurisdiction.
While not working his way deeper into the Nativist group, he bumps into (literally) Cameron Diaz' Jenny Everdeane, a Blodger and a Turtledove. We later learn those terms to respectively mean a woman pickpocket, and a robber who travels to the wealthy uptown district and poses as hired help to sneak inside manors to rob the rich blind. She makes the mistake of lifting Amsterdam's pendant of St. Michael, which had been given to him by his father. One must imagine that her character was crafted out of the need to temper the very manly doings of the story with a bit of estrogen, and although Jenny never feels entirely necessary to the proceedings she does become an intriguing thread. If Amsterdam is Jack Dawson's bad twin, then she is his Rose from hell. He hates her as much as he loves her, and many of their scenes are fraught with anger and tension. Instead of sketching her loveliness, he examines her scars and proffers his own for her examination.
The other characters in their world are equally corrupt and dangerous. John C. Reilly plays an ex-Dead Rabbit turned policeman, who brags about his status in Five Points by stating that he can leave his pocket watch dangling from a local lamppost and not worry about it being stolen because ‘everyone knows it's his'. The film takes place in an interesting time in the mid-1800s when New York actually had two police forces, the state-run Metropolitan Police and the local Municipal Police, who fought each other like gangs themselves. As Boss Tweed explains, you could pay off one police force only to find the rival team cracking down on your shady operations. The law is the last thing on anyone's mind, and Tweed takes to immediately swearing in fresh Irish immigrant arrivals as citizens as a way to gain votes for Tammany. Later in the film, a sheriff's election yields the result of there being 3,000 more votes than there are voters.
This is where Bill's alliance with Tweed is tenuous, as the former man clearly states that he wishes he had the guns to personally execute every new immigrant before they can taint his nation by stepping on its soil. This conjures another tour de force scene, where Scorsese begins a tracking pan of immigrants exiting a ship (to be sworn in as citizens) followed hard upon by military recruiters handing them rifles and uniforms so that they can now ‘fight for their country.' As the camera follows the queue, we hear Irish lads boarding new ships while discussing the fact that they don't know where this place ‘Tennessee' is that they're being sent to fight at. The piece de resistance is the final segment of the shot revealing coffin after coffin being unloaded from the same ship, unveiling the full circle of the death machine. All that's missing is the meat grinder visual from Pink Floyd's The Wall.
By this point Amsterdam has (as he puts it) become snug ‘under the wings of a dragon', where he finds it to be ‘warmer than you think'. The film explores the element of the undercover agent who goes so deep that he finds himself losing his identity and siding with the enemy. Amsterdam also falls victim to the traditional Hamlet-like inability to act. A reference that is brilliantly addressed by Brendan Gleeson's ‘Monk' McGinn, who calls Amsterdam's selfless act of saving Bill from an assassination attempt (only to preserve him for his own murderous intent) "Bloody Shakespearian". When Amsterdam asks who Shakespeare is, he's cheekily told that ‘He wrote the New Testament'. Gangs of New York actually improves upon the Hamlet template by replacing the villainous Claudius with a surrogate father figure whom the protagonist truly admires. Traditional relationships are shot to hell in a world where the villain loves the fallen figure more than the figure's avenger does. Likewise, the villain becomes more of a father to Amsterdam than his real father probably ever was. Amsterdam weeps with frustration after saving Bill's life, but is he weeping over his lack of swift action toward revenge, or over the possibility that he might just love Bill like a father? McGinn tells him that he's either too clever for his own good or just monstrously stupid.
This leads to a remarkable heart to heart after a night of whoring in which Amsterdam awakens to find the over-the-top sight of Bill in a rocking chair (swaddled in an American flag) professing his love for Amsterdam as the son he never had, and explaining how Priest Vallon was the most honorable man on the planet. He reveals that Vallon at first bested him yet allowed him to live in shame, an act that gave Bill the fire inside to finally kill the man in battle. It's almost as if he knows who Amsterdam is and is imploring him to be a man and take action. When Bill finally gains knowledge of Amsterdam's true identity, it spurs him into action and an ill-fated assassination attempt follows in which Bill purposefully torments Jenny in an onstage knife throwing routine during the annual celebration of the Priest's murder. Amsterdam is no match for Bill, who relishes the opportunity to scar the boy's face with the searing tip of a blade and let him live with the mark of shame just as Vallon before had shamed Bill.
Amsterdam is nursed back to health by Jenny, and eventually reforms the Dead Rabbits, which immediately draws the attention of Boss Tweed, eager for a new avenue of Irish votes. Jenny implores him to uproot and travel to San Francisco with her (back in the days when you had to sail all the way around South America and back up the west coast of the Americas to get there). He refuses, still subject to a bros-before-hos mindset with plenty of manly deeds to be done. The final conflicts are set against the backdrop of the New York Draft Riots, another forgotten element of American History in which immigrants rose up against the military once Lincoln created the conscription act to help generate more troops for the Civil War. The riots were ostensibly borne from outrage over the poor being unfairly punished, since only the rich could afford the $300 fee required in order to opt out of the draft service. The truth of the matter was more likely that they resented being forced to fight for Lincoln's anti-slave movement, and many of the ensuing scenes of mayhem involve blacks being targeted as objects of the mob's rage.
By this point Bill has overstepped his boundaries by murdering a sheriff in broad daylight, and it's clear he has no more intention of playing by Boss Tweed's rules. The final fight between his Nativists and the Dead Rabbits' immigrant hordes is rendered inconsequential by the onset of the draft riots, and the combatants find themselves unable to recapture the glorious battles of old as they must instead find shelter from falling rubble as nearby ships fire cannonballs into the Five Points. Much of the action occurs amidst an impenetrable cloud of smoke, as shapeless and unsure as the future of the country itself. Bill the Butcher's way of life and world falls to pieces around him, and any victory for Amsterdam will be hindered by the fact that Bill wants to be killed. He wants to die for his country and his twisted ideals, more than ever now that they will have no place in society.
The question is whether or not Amsterdam acts as he does because he disagrees with the racist views of Bill and his Klu Klux Klan-ish followers (who laughably consider themselves to be ‘Native' Americans) or out of pure devotion to bloodthirsty revenge. In these aspects perhaps DiCaprio isn't quite up to the task of revealing his character's true motivations, and it must have been tough to go head to head with Day-Lewis' unbridled intensity. Once Bono's song ‘The Hands That Built America' begins playing on the soundtrack, it's up to the viewer to determine whose hands it's discussing, and whether that's something to be celebrated or is merely a fact that these people existed. I assume it's to extol the virtues of the immigrants; otherwise it's treading on controversial Birth of A Nation territory if Bill's travails are included in the lauding.Speaking of controversy, there's been a lot of harping about the final shot of the old Manhattan skyline that eventually morphs into a more modern vista complete with the twin towers. But it is very effective. If you don't immediately grasp a connection between these events and the events of 9/11, you can still feel them somehow and sense a twinge of pride when the towers appear. It actually works very well. As do the end credits, which begin with the titles (a union obligation, since the film didn't open with any). The words Gangs of New York loom huge in the frame, stitched together from numerous typesets in a final homage to the ‘melting pot' nature of the city and the nation as a whole. And suddenly the image zooms in randomly, an off-putting effect that still feels essentially Scorsese. And in spite of all the talk and criticism, once the credits are rolling, the sensation hits that this isn't just an average Scorsese picture, it's a major one. The artist is not past his prime, and the proof is in this, one of his best films. Its greatness is undeniable, warts and all.