Martin Scorsese's dark and dreary “Gangs of New York” is not the fairy tale that I had expected. It is instead, a claustrophobic retelling of America’s history from its very ugly roots. It takes place in the lower East Side of Manhattan, between 1840 and the Civil War years. And for that time, Scorsese couldn’t have made it a more depressing place to live.
The opening scene commences in an underground foundry, where an Irish-American leader named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) has gathered up his gang, the Dead Rabbits, to prepare for battle against the oppressing rival American-born gang, the Nativists.
Before the battle takes place, each side waits for his leader to give the commanding words. The Natives are led by William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), who finally leads the divine charge against the Dead Rabbits. An extraordinary display of violence and bloodshed takes place, and Priest Vallon falls before his son at the hands of William Cutting. The fight at Five Points has ended, leaving the snowy streets littered with bodies. Priest’s son Amsterdam, is taken into an orphanage, where he will stay until his early 20s. Fifteen years later, he (now Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to Five Points, still ruled by Bill the Butcher, and is prepared to avenge his father.
But is Amsterdam ready? You will not find out anytime soon. “Gangs of New York” is a long, almost-3 hour movie that has the time to answer it. As I said, this is no fairy tale. Amsterdam doesn’t just simply put on a head-band and start killing nameless thugs, setting the stage for a showdown with the king villain in the final scene. It’s a gradual process, as Amsterdam must learn his enemy, and will even become the Butcher’s apprentice, keeping his true past a secret.
Amsterdam will work for the Butcher, and will even protect him from harm. This bizarre relationship can only be explained by the envy that Amsterdam must find in his father’s killer. I’ll get into DiCaprio’s character further into the review.
A lot has changed while Amsterdam was away. The Dead Rabbits have died off, making way for several other short-living gangs. Amsterdam must rejuvenate the Dead Rabbits, which may be easier said than done. He slowly recognizes the men who used to fight alongside his father, but most of them have since joined other alliances. “Gangs of New York” is packed with characters that evenly contribute their chunk to the overall beef of the movie. I turned to Roger Ebert’s review for the character list. He wrote, “...a pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a hired club named Monk (Brendan Gleeson), the shopkeeper Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), and historical figures such as William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), ruler of corrupt Tammany Hall, and P.T. Barnum (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), whose museum of curiosities scarcely rivals the daily displays on the streets.”
One of Scorsese's greatest talents is character development. Each character’s contribution to this film’s depth carries a significant weight. Standing out, is Jenny the pickpocket. Through her character, is how we are shown the status of women, and their quality of life during those times. Some of the women fight with the rebels, but many of them are prostitutes. Even Jenny has been with her share of men, in a desperate attempt to find her way. Her character seems to cry out the most, begging for sympathy in an unforgiving society. She is the hero’s love interest, but it will take time before they settle. It will also take time before they being to trust each other.
While Amsterdam has his moments, the Butcher is this year’s best villain. He appears to kill for pleasure, but his reasons are logical and even convincing. Before learning that his apprentice is the son of his slain enemy, he emotionally confesses to Amsterdam. “Priest was the best man I ever killed....he was the only one worth remembering.” This monologue suggests that Bill is good, only clouded by religious ideology. But Bill is in fact evil to his core. As a native-born citizen, he has no respect for the Irish immigrants, nor any citizens of Europe. But his hatred towards the Irish and blacks is equally dispersed towards the Americans through love and loyalty. This regard for his people will force you to find a good side in him, which will consequently take away from Amsterdam’s cause. Sure, his father was murdered, but in war. Rarely is there ever this much depth in the good/evil of Hollywood characters. Either he is good or bad; should live or should die. Much of the credit goes to Jay Cock’s screenplay, but just as much goes to Scorsese. I must also not forget to give credit to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who brought the movie to life. The scenery is breathtaking, and the overhead shots of the peripheral city are beautiful.
Leonardo DiCaprio was good, but I’ve seen better and I expected more. Maybe I found myself not liking his character as much as I wanted to. Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Bill the Butcher, is more powerful and much stronger. It is possible that his character simply overshadows DiCaprio’s. Look for DiCaprio in the upcoming “Catch Me If You Can.”
“Gangs of New York” has so many themes, it is no wonder that the movie is nearly three hours long. The biggest issue though, is the state of depression that looms over Five Points. The people live in poverty, while the few rich don’t have it much better. The town is often swelled up in riots, much of it targeted against the rich, who can avoid the first American draft by coughing up $300.
Dirty politics play a role in the film. Bogus elections are staged, propaganda goes to extremes, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many levels of bureaucracy in a movie about government and power. Each district of Five Points has their own paid police force and fire squadron, all competing for business. In one scene, firefighters stop fighting a fire, and begin killing other firefighters from a different squad. Of course there are gangs, and many of them. There is a federal army who recruits from all of the above; those who refuse to get drafted become their own gang in the form of rioters as I’ve already mentioned. The rebels are just as brutal to the Army as the Natives are to the immigrants and the blacks.
Through it all, Amsterdam will try to get his Dead Rabbits to conquer the Natives. He will try to avenge his father’s death and win the heart of Jenny. “Gangs of New York” ultimately falls short of being a perfect film. Some viewers won’t appreciate the long duration, and others like myself, will not be totally engaged in the hero. I was ready to grade this film somewhere in the ‘B’ range, but that wouldn’t have done justice to a movie with so much flare, countless extras, and elaborate props. But that must be expected when the director is Martin Scorsese. His biggest challenge is himself. The deciding factor for me however, was the closing scene.
After the climax, we are treated to a memorable final shot, which is indeed a satisfying payoff. It was probably the least expensive scene to shoot in the entire movie, but it got the message across--America was born in the streets.