In all honesty — and mindful of Martin Scorsese’s immense reputation — I have never been among greatest his admirers.
Frankly, I had been dreading this movie.
Nothing about the trailer appealed to me, and the DiCaprio/Scorsese combination just didn’t bode well. It was with some surprise, then, that I found myself loving this film.
Gangs of New York is, quite honestly, nothing short of a masterpiece — a big, sprawling epic of a film with a recognizable yet extremely complex human center. And it’s the second epic this week that I’d unreservedly call brilliant.
But don’t misunderstand me: This film is nothing like The Two Towers; in fact, it would be hard to find two more dissimilar epics. Peter Jackson’s second installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is state-of-the-art filmmaking that can only exist because of modern technology. Gangs of New York, on the other hand, is a film that could easily have been made 30 years ago — in fact, it has much of the feel and look of the best of 1970s filmmaking.
In quite another sense, Gangs of New York is even more “old-fashioned” in that it takes a tip from that most revered of epics, Gone With the Wind. But where that classic sets its romantic center against the backdrop of the Civil War, Gangs of New York blends its personal story with the events that led to the Draft Riots of 1863, when Irish immigrants and other impoverished people rebelled against the government’s blatantly unfair conscription law (which allowed the rich to buy their way out of military service for $300).
Like Gone With the Wind, Gangs of New York isn’t strictly about its backdrop — but unlike the Civil War-era landmark film, the backdrop is considerably more than an excuse to turn a fairly ordinary story into an epic. In the first place, Gangs of New York’s story line has considerably greater depth than the long, long story of Scarlett and Rhett’s bad timing. Moreover, Scorsese and his screenwriters deftly tie the events of the story to the Draft Riots — and also use those conflagrations as a commentary on the personal story.
And there’s yet another level on which the film works: With its depictions of the privileged buying their way out of military service, xenophobia run rampant and racism born of the need for a scapegoat, Gangs of New York serves as a shrewd comment on modern times.
The resulting film is an amazing achievement — a complex, multifaceted work that’s startlingly alive in a way very few movies are. Scorsese here reveals himself as something more than a bold stylist. Even while using and building upon his trademark stylized approach, there’s more going on than a lot of zip and flash.
Stylization, though, is certainly at the forefront. Scorsese even copies his own famous overhead shot of the dice from Casino, but here he actually uses the device to strengthen the tension of a scene, while the original is little more than Scorsese showing off his visual panache.
In many ways, Gangs of New York is the film Scorsese has been trying to make for years — one where style and content are at last on even footing. Its story line is deceptively simple — Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) revenges himself on Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the Irish-hating “native” who controls New York’s Five Points, and who killed Amsterdam’s father.
While Amsterdam is a more than usually complex hero — and DiCaprio’s performance is close to revelatory for the previously callow actor — the film’s most compelling character is the villainous Bill the Butcher. Bill is no simple bad guy, but a richly complicated character — thoroughly corrupt, blindly xenophobic, virtually illiterate, but with a peculiar code of rough ethics all his own, an appalling charm, and a quirky wit.
These aspects are beautifully set up early on when, after killing Amsterdam’s father (Liam Neeson) in a gang fight, Bill allows his men to claim ears and noses as souvenirs of their victory, but insists that Vallon be left intact, feeling him to have been an enemy worthy of respect.
When one of Vallon’s gang, Monk (Brendan Gleeson), insists on retrieving money owed him by the dead man, Bill remarks, “Fair enough — a bit indelicate, but fair.” Subsequently, he evidences some concern over the fate of Amsterdam, suggesting that the boy get the one thing he himself doesn’t have — an education.
Scorsese is blessed in having Daniel Day-Lewis for Bill the Butcher. It’s the performance of his career — the performance of anyone’s career. Sharp-etched, brutal, incisive, yet strangely moving and uncomfortably sympathetic (Bill is as much a man whose time is passing as a simple villain), Day-Lewis’ characterization is a towering feat — and the performance that affords Gangs of New York much of its emotional weight.
There’s not a false performance in the film — Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson and David Hemmings all offer fine characterizations — but Day-Lewis is the outstanding one in this brave, rich, self-assured film.