It’s a curious thing that Gangs of New York (2002) is the film that moved me from the ranks of someone who admired Martin Scorsese’s work to the level of someone who loves his films — and yet I had not revisited the film until now. I could have easily enough — the DVD has been on my shelves since it came out, and I found that the shrink wrap had never even been removed till this weekend. I am not sure why this happened, but I was delighted to find that nearly 11 years later, it has lost none of its luster. It is still Scorsese at his most boldly operatic — and with a story that fully calls for that treatment. (My biggest problem with 20th-century Scrosese is that his films are mostly about subjects that don’t appeal to me.) In a sense, this could be said to be his Gone with the Wind — by which I mean it’s a mostly fictional story set against a huge historical backdrop. (It’s a little trickier than that since a lot of the characters are real, but they’re not always in their proper setting. For example, the Daniel Day-Lewis character — Bill “the Butcher” Cutting — is drawn from William Poole, also known as “Bill the Butcher,” but who was dead before the bulk of the film’s action takes place.) It’s also a better film — and certainly more interesting as filmmaking.
The screenplay by former film critic Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan was very loosely based on part of the 1928 book of the same name by Herbert Ashbury — so loosely, in fact, that the book was not credited. The film’s prologue (set in 1846), in which gangs of Irish immigrants — led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson) — are defeated by Bill “the Butcher’s” gangs of “natives” (non-immigrants), sets up the plot when Vallon is killed. This event fills Vallon’s son Amsterdam (Cian McCormack) with the desire for revenge that he attempts to carry out 16 years later when he returns as a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio). In itself, this is a pretty simple plot, but it’s not handled that way. Amsterdam’s ability to impress Bill and work his way into his gang — which functions under the protection and guidance of “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent) — also creates complicated alliances, both with Bill’s ward, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), and with Bill himself, who proves to be a much more complex villain.
The film’s attention to detail is nothing short of astounding, and while the final showdown between Amsterdam and Bill couldn’t have taken place during the New York City draft riots of 1863, but as parallel drama and allegory, it’s hard to beat. It isn’t history, but it reaches a greater truth as part of the greater struggle for civilization that’s at the heart of the film. Interestingly, the film was originally slated for a Christmas release in 2001, but was pulled and held back a full year. No reason was ever given, and nothing was done to the film in the meantime, which makes me suspect that it had to do with Scorsese’s insistence on his shot of the New York skyline including the World Trade Center towers.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Gangs of New York Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.