#17 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This is Martin Scorsese’s biggest and messiest movie. This is a massive and dense history lesson of a largely forgotten moment and series of cultures in America’s largest city. Amidst all the gangs, politicians, historical conflicts, and recreations is the story of a young man’s search for vengeance. The movie’s spilling over the sides, and I imagine that Scorsese’s original four hour cut of the film might have worked better, especially on the back end, but this wealth of riches is so thoroughly entertaining and the different pieces tied together effectively enough that while it may be somewhat imperfect, I find it to be an endlessly fascinating and compelling watch.
The story begins in 1846 when the leader of the Irish gang, the Dead Rabbits, “Priest” Vallon, decides that he and his people cannot take any more abuse from the Nativist gangs, led by William “The Butcher” Cutting of the Bowery Boys. Before getting into any real story, though, this movie thrusts a lot of its greatest assets into the audience’s face from the forefront. Filmed on a giant set at the Roman movie studio Cinecitta, where Fellini, one of Scorsese’s main inspirations and, at for the last few years of the Italian’s life, friend, had filmed everything he had made since Nights of Cabiria, Gangs of New York is simply a marvel to look at. The sets, designed by Danet Ferretti, have incredible depth from looks down the street to into every shop and building. There’s dirt and grime in every nook and cranny. There are hundreds of extras, all in incredibly detailed period costumes, across so many shots. This represents an inflection point in Scorsese’s career where he was suddenly able to command huge budgets (the closest up to this point was the $50 million, no mean amount, he used to make Casino). Since, he hasn’t made a movie for less than $80 million except for the passion project Silence, which he made for $46 million.
The opening battle between the Irish and the Natives in the Five Points is a direct reference to Orson Welles’ Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight in that it’s made up almost entirely of individual pieces of violence. At the time that Welles made his decision to film his key battle like that, it was a budgetary concern since he never had enough money for more than a hundred extras at a time, not nearly enough people to pull the camera back and show the movements of battle with any degree of conviction. Scorsese uses the tactic for a different reason though. This is a massive street brawl. The couple of time we pull back from the intimacies of the bloodshed, we see that there are no strategies or tactics involved. It’s just two masses of people who want to tear at each other’s flesh flying at each other and attacking. In the end, The Butcher strikes Vallon down in front of Vallon’s small son, who gets sent to Hellgate to spend the next sixteen years.
The opening functions as a prologue to the actual story, that of the son, Amsterdam Vallon, returning to the Five Points as a young man to exact vengeance for his father’s death. In order simply survive, Amsterdam hitches up with a young man, Jimmy, who is a very low level member of one of the gangs that reports up to the Butcher, who has now consolidated his power to the point where Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall has to reach out and look for his support. Amsterdam ends up impressing the Butcher through some public displays of bravery and an inventive use of a corpse, creating the ironic situation of Amsterdam being taken under the wing of the man he’s set out to kill.
Up until Amsterdam decides to make his move against the Butcher, this movie feels like it’s building towards something very specific, and we’re waiting for all the pieces to come together. Scorsese seems to have built this film like a traditional epic, and there’s even a spot for an intermission that feels like it really should have had an Entr-acte. At the annual celebration of the priest’s death, when the Butcher killed the last man worth remembering him having killed as he says, Amsterdam makes his move, but his friend Jimmy had given him up out of jealousy and the Butcher maims and tortures Amsterdam in return. It’s this moment, where the screen suddenly goes to black, that feels like was build for an Intermission. The way the next scene starts up, very quietly with a doctor coming into the catacombs to treat the wounded Amsterdam, feels like it was the start of a second act. What I’m saying is that I wish this had been given the Roadshow Release it deserved.
All of this happens at about an hour and forty minutes in, leaving about an hour of time to cover the rest of the story, and the rest of the story was not that small. Where this movie got cut down was pretty obviously more heavily focused on this back end than the front. The idea of running Monk for sheriff is brought up, quickly dealt with, and then quickly moved on in about fifteen minutes. The bravura election sequence feels too short, and it was obviously meant to help build the conflict out from just Amsterdam against the Butcher to the second instance of the larger fight between the Irish and the Natives. That build up feels truncated, like Harvey Weinstein forced Scorsese to limit the actual scope of the build up in the second half in order to hit a particular run time. Weinstein described at the time his fights with Scorsese as worthless and a string of defeats for himself, but I kind of doubt that. The second half of the film makes it feel like Scorsese lost some battles in the editing room to his producer.
The finale of the film is dominated by a recreation of the Draft Riots of 1863, where a mob raged for several days in response to Lincoln’s draft for 30,000 troops to help fill out the then damaged Union Army. What’s really interesting is how Amsterdam and the Butcher, racing headlong into their final showdown, don’t care at all about the grander issues swirling around them. They’re so myopic that when they face down each other in the streets for one final time with their gangs behind them the larger battle intercedes completely unexpectedly, even though the temperature of the city has been raising for weeks because of the draft. The ending is a sort of explanation for why the history dramatized had been forgotten. The gangs that helps forge the city were wiped out by more national concerns, and happily forgotten by Tammany Hall. Whether this has much to do with the actual history, I doubt, but it is a strangely sad little ending as the gangs suddenly come to each others’ aid as the Union troops march into try and establish order.
In a story as large and sprawlingly told as Gangs of New York, there are a bevy of side characters, and the most prominent of these is Cameron Diaz’s Jenny. Now, Diaz’s accent may go in and out slightly here and there, but she is surprisingly good as the bludger who gets close to Amsterdam and offers him a way out of the mess that he refuses to take. She’s alternatively feisty, coy, and deeply wounded as the story progresses. Brendan Gleeson is his normal, professional self as Monk, a large man with a club who becomes a barber in the ensuing years. John C. Reilly balances his menacing but small role as the corrupt police officer Happy Jack exceptionally well. I do have to take a quick moment to talk about Jimmy Spoils, played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr.
There’s nothing wrong with how Gilliard plays the black character caught up in the Irish gang, but it’s a vanishingly small part and it seems to be there to try and protect Amsterdam from the reality that there was a lot of anti-black sentiment in the Irish community, softening a potential hard edge by giving him a black companion. Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the idea of the Irish attacking blacks in the riots, focusing on them rather directly for a little bit, but it all ends up murky enough that Roger Ebert, in his review, stated that the mob was attacking blacks and the Irish instead of the reality (that Scorsese does present) that the Irish were the ones attacking the blacks. I get the impulse to prevent your main character from being a completely repellent individual, but Jimmy Spoils ends up as little more than a token and his death ends up with little emotional impact, which is a disappointment.
The movie is hugely ambitious, taking on more than it can completely deliver, but it’s anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio’s solid performance as Amsterdam and Daniel Day Lewis’s absolutely fantastic performance as Bill the Butcher. His accent, his manner of speaking, and his mere presence are completely intimidating, and he’s also a fully fledged character, operating on a base philosophy that’s tangible and understandable. He’s a monster, but he’s also a fully-fledged monster with a history, a set of beliefs, and real desires.
There’s too much going on for the runtime. I think a longer cut would have made the second half flow better, but I do wonder if this was ever going to be great. It’s really good, a movie that struggles to bring all of its so many pieces together into a whole, and it gets awfully close.