When heralding Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon as an emotional landmark in 1981, Pauline Kael expressed a pang of hesitation as to how good she felt the film was; she didn’t want to overshadow her feelings (and the resultant expectations of her readers) with needless hyperbole. I’m in somewhat of the same boat writing about Martin Scorsese’s long overdue Gangs of New York, except that instead of celebrating a step frontward in cinema’s evolution I have the responsibility to bid farewell to an establishment that, in one of its final breaths, has produced an epic about history that in turn becomes history. Gangs is an exceptionally violent and passionate account of American and New York City history set before and during the draft riots of 1863 and must count as one of the most moving and profound cinematic statements ever made. No film in recent memory has instantaneously emerged as being so compelling, funny, scary and breathtaking (if occasionally sloppy) in its construction but also with such a reflective sense of drama, history and shifts in cultural mood. As such, one of the film’s first lines of dialogue (“Some of it I half remember. The rest I took from dreams…”) is crucial to revealing the film’s true nature.
Bulky and overstuffed with characters, details and episodes, Gangs of New York will divide those who accept its flaws as integral to its greatness and those who find Scorsese reaching for effects he doesn’t know how to construct. Gangs of New York could be considered a breakthrough or a breakdown—the latter offered up as an observation by a colleague of mine in conversation about the film. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the film is, on some level, one of Scorsese’s most unsettled works. In attempting to pack enough material for a ten-part miniseries into a 168-minute feature, the film shows stretch marks rare to a career that has been built on fastidiousness. Parallel editing speeds up the doling of information that might have been more valuable if explained with leisure, dialogue is overlapped and mis-matched with the mouths of the actors speaking it, and much of the film’s magnificent period milieu flashes by so rapidly that multiple viewings will be required to soak it all in. But could this so-called breakdown have produced Scorsese’s breakthrough as an artist? It’s easy to see that at some point during filming he let go of his need to get everything right and allowed his innermost passions as a filmmaker to guide the picture’s direction. He’s never made a film as willful, as ardent, as vulnerable in its emotions as Gangs of New York, and if exactitude was the price to pay for a film of such potency and resolve, so be it. The film loses little, but gains so much more.
Critics have already pointed out similarities between Gangs of New York and Sergio Leone’s loose, heartfelt Once Upon a Time in America, but a more appropriate point of comparison is to Michael Cimino’s legendary Heaven’s Gate, a film that has so many links to Gangs that one might think they are one and the same. They are both about the American government’s violent mistreatment of immigrant citizens; they had long and troubled production histories; they are of such singular vision that they sometimes appear inattentive in their construction; they were (in Gangs’ case, allegedly) tampered with by the releasing studio; and they are both made by the rare filmmaker who had enough clout and determination at the time to command the resources and personal resolve to pull off such huge accomplishments. Ironically, it was the folly of Heaven’s Gate that prevented Scorsese from making Gangs when he first wanted to in the late 1970s, and had it been made then it would have been viewed with less novelty than it is today. But it also would have stood a better chance of being appreciated. That was a time when a personal vision could be celebrated in its imperfections (as was the case with the granddaddy of such, Apocalypse Now). Now Gangs is merely troubled, no matter what triumphs it can boast of. It thankfully will be quicker to find its supporters than the underappreciated Heaven’s Gate, but its ability to make a definitive impression on the cinematic landscape has yet to be determined.
The film opens with a striking close-up of eyes burning with fury that comes to haunt the entire film. It’s fitting that a film as prescient in its sense of history as Gangs of New York eventually comes to rest on such a classical plot. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his Dead Rabbits meet Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Native Americans to settle a challenge in the middle of lower Manhattan’s Five Points district, a hub of chaos and terror where the streets are paved with blood and dead bodies. On this snowy morning, Priest fights for the liberties of the Irish and other immigrants who want to make an equal living in America, while Bill desires nothing more than the subservience of those he considers his inferiors. This opening sequence slowly builds into a battle of overwhelming horror, fought with knives, axes, metal claws and other crude instruments of devastation; when the smoke clears, Bill has struck down Priest while the latter’s young son looks on. It is this boy, Amsterdam (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance of steely resolve), who makes his way back to the Five Points to seek both fortune and revenge when he is released from the state-run orphanage 16 years later. Amsterdam rekindles old alliances, as well as new ones, as he plots revenge against his father’s murderer. Hiding his true identity from Bill, who is prone to reminisce about Priest as the only great adversary he ever had, Amsterdam slowly becomes the Butcher’s right hand man, hoping to assassinate him as Bill makes his annual celebration of the Natives’ victory.
One of Gangs of New York‘s many masterstrokes is that Bill the Butcher’s role in the proceedings is never clearly defined; he is characterized not by what crimes he commits, but by the blackest of hearts that beats at his core. Racist and boorish, decked up with a hat that would make Abe Lincoln proud, he displays a malevolent funny bone and a sharply reflexive awareness of how his brutality is enjoyed by those around him as a sort of theatrical sadism. His unofficial capacity is as the chief of local crime; his charisma eclipses his roots as a petty gangster and allows him to work his way into the corrupt schemes of Tammany Hall authority Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent, giving the role a masterfully heartless composure), who commissions Bill the duty of coordinating the various anarchies in the Points, from brawls between competing fire departments to the forceful “registering” of voters during elections. But thanks to Scorsese’s empathetic eye, and a staggering Day-Lewis performance that covets neither sympathy nor understanding but somehow still produces both, Bill is the film’s tragic hero, a man bred into hatred and violence because those are the only means by which to forge success in his surroundings.
Day-Lewis’s scenes with DiCaprio are where Gangs of New York accumulates its uneasy sensitivity. DiCaprio could be called the year’s true Best Actor for his work here and in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, and though the roles are on opposite ends of the spectrum, it should be noted that both are characters who form hesitant surrogate-father relationships with their principal antagonists—Tom Hanks as F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty in Catch and Bill Cutting in Gangs. Scorsese is not afraid to delve into the perverse identification that Amsterdam feels with Bill (it’s the same that we do), but he does so mostly in scenes in which Amsterdam sits and soaks in Bill’s commanding authority. DiCaprio’s performance is all the more compelling for being so quiet and attentive, and it is in those moments that Gangs of New York removes itself from the mayhem of the plot and sits down with its heroes, giving the colossal epic form its most crucial element for success: intimacy.
Gangs of New York is rife with the signposts of a Martin Scorsese picture. Catholicism shrouds the film in inevitable morality—much of the violence takes place in or around a church (one character’s sword is even sheathed within a large metal cross), and there’s an early scene in which a character tosses a bible into a river and it sinks, ever so slowly, brilliantly suggesting how those who swear by their religion are simultaneously compelled to rupture its values. The violence itself is more shocking and powerful than anything Scorsese has ever filmed. If Taxi Driver caught a jolt of electricity from Travis Bickle’s climactic retribution, and Goodfellas allowed itself to present murder as part of a grand guignol fraternity, there is no such gratification to be had in Gangs. The initial battle between the Rabbits and Natives is remarkably filmed. After erecting a sense of apprehensive anticipation with the Rabbits’ slow march through their cavernous stronghold into the Points to meet the Natives, Scorsese drops out incidental sound from the brawl itself, allowing the ferocious images and Howard Shore’s pounding music to transform it from an action sequence into a barrage of repulsion as cheeks are gouged and bones are snapped. Further brutality is informed by these early moments; despite his buildup of tension, Scorsese finds no sense of joy or spectacle in the bloodletting. It is raw, vicious, and painful to watch.
But where Gangs of New York breaks new ground is that no Scorsese film before it has been so willing to let the director’s naked enthusiasm—his love not only for the history within the film and its characters but also the purity of cinema—reveal itself in all of its unabashed glory. Be it the reserved detachment of Taxi Driver, the repressed romance in The Age of Innocence, or the aloof brutality of Raging Bull, Scorsese has always relied on the precision of his montage to keep his emotional palette composed; it’s not that he hasn’t made deeply expressive films, but they’ve always avoided reveling in reckless sentimentality and anger, as if Scorsese was worried that an emotional unraveling would somehow detract from the clarity of his vision. With Gangs of New York he has finally let go of his reservations; indeed, the film boils over with so much feeling that watching it often borders on unbearable. It is not the film’s depiction of countless prejudices and injustices that lend it that feeling, but instead its onslaught of sensation; few films of this scope and size have been as deeply felt.
So much of Gangs of New York is entrenched within the engagements of its characters—Bill’s spiteful impositions on his minions, Boss Tweed’s cold-blooded manipulations of the public, Amsterdam’s faltering connection with an insolent pickpocket (Cameron Diaz)—that as the film slowly turns the tables and begins to expand its gaze, the sense of history swallowing up its participants in such a remorseless manner becomes the film’s most upsetting and insightful statement. It begins gradually, peaking in a moment of stifling clarity: in one of his brand name tracking shots, Scorsese unflinchingly details America’s exploitation of immigrants as young men just off the boats from Ireland are pressed into Civil War duty, dressed and armed and put back onto another boat bound for war, all while coffins are unloaded onto the docks. It’s the kind of shot that you don’t grasp the full implications of until the rest of the film has played out and you’re able to go back and search out everything you’ve missed. A sign of Gangs of New York‘s greatness is that there are more of these instances present than most filmmakers produce in a lifetime of work.
Soon, however, the film wages a full-bore assault against history’s forgotten chapters as the poor are drafted into the Union Army while Boss Tweed’s rich associates are protected by their bank accounts and upper-class reputations. The film culminates with one of American history’s darkest episodes, in which the lower-class citizens of Manhattan rise up in a violent insurrection against the government’s draft policies and were brutally massacred by the military they were intended to join. (It was the most catastrophic event in New York before 9/11.) These riots are juxtaposed with the climactic confrontation between Amsterdam, who has reunited the Dead Rabbits, and Bill the Butcher, who, having lost some of his political sway, has finally allowed his demons to seize whatever sanity he has left; they have taken to the streets to do battle once more, but this time around the battle is no longer theirs to fight. The rivalry and conflict between Amsterdam and Bill, the immigrants and the natives, is the bedrock which this country was founded upon—Bill’s heritage is unquestionably foreign too, the way the Americans who fought in the American Revolution were once from British stock—and their private war suggests the way history manipulates cultural and personal identity to the point where it becomes a mass of confusion and contradiction that leads to explosions of violence. And as Union soldiers gun down protestors in the street without mercy or warning, the concept of gang warfare—be it on the streets, fought with blades and makeshift armor, or on the battlefield in uniforms of blue and gray—is elevated to a new understanding. Gangs of New York is not simply about street gangs in the 1860s. It is about the core of the struggles everyone endures in their attempt to make a life for themselves in our country.
History manipulates us all: it forgets about its accomplices; it’s cruel to its survivors; and it’s in turn contrived by those who must catalog and record it. These people will not do justice to Gangs of New York; it is likely to be remembered more for its lengthy and problematic production history than it is in its actuality. But Scorsese seems aware of this, and is remarkably at peace with his film’s fate. In his final tableaux, one of the most forcible and eloquent ever committed to celluloid, Scorsese anticipates his future, and the future of the medium so dear to his heart, as just another hostage of the same vacuum that has consumed Amsterdam Vallon, Bill the Butcher, and the countless other members of the draft riots in 1863. With a graveyard in the foreground and the skyline of Manhattan in the distance, the latter expands to tower over its surroundings while the graves, which hold men that were once so vital to their worlds, slowly crumble into oblivion. As history grows, the past shrinks away, just as while the cinema is invaded with computer effects and digital projection technology, the once-important record of the medium—the faded, crumbling reels of celluloid and the stories they contain—dwindle and erode into the memories of those who were lucky enough to catch a glimpse. Gangs of New York is an elegy for everyone, and everything, that lingers on, long after they have been forgotten, in our dreams.