As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle holybeeofephesus’s #3 pick, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit mad and disappointed when Gangs of New York ended up on our favorite movies of the last fifteen years. Martin Scorsese’s tale of of historical revenge set in Five Points of Manhattan was not a favorite of mine. The story is simple enough: In 1846, the Five Points was a gang laden part of New York. People claiming to be Nativist (American born people of British descent) are led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a man hell bent on keeping control over and away from freshly immigrated people. His main rival is Priest Vallon ( Liam Neeson) and his gang the Dead Rabbits, comprised of newly immigrated Irish Catholics. Bill manages to kill Vallon and subdue the war but not before Vallon’s son Amsterdam witness the act and manages to flee. 16 years later, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns and infiltrates Bill’s Nativist gang in the hopes of killing him for revenge.
The last time I saw it was in 2002 and besides Daniel Day-Lewis, I was feeling very let down by what I watched. I didn’t know what to make of it besides it being a giant mess ending with a horrible attempt by U2 at winning an Oscar. Scorsese was (and still is) a cornerstone of what makes me a cinephile, so I felt very strongly in my opinion that Scorsese made a misstep with the film. Because I hardly ever heard it spoken in film circles in the past 14 years since it was released, I felt validated with my assessment of the film. It lay forgotten in my mind until it was included in the draft, and I was forced to question my opinion of Scorsese’s huge movie.
The beauty of the Ultimate Playbill is that it has given me a reason to reevaluate my past conceptions of films, loved or hated. Rewatches have been all over the map but for some reason I felt excited to rewatch Gangs. I am glad I gave it another chance because while I still have a lot of problems with the film, the final product is something truly cinematic. To understand the film, It is necessary to provide some context to the production and lengths Scorsese and team went to get the film exactly how they wanted.
Gangs of New York is a passion project for Martin Scorsese. It’s something he has been interested in ever since he was a child growing up in the same area where the film takes place. His desire to make this movie extends back to 70’s just when he was becoming a household name. His desire to recreate the exact look of mid-19th century kept the movie from being made as he found nothing to satisfy him. So, Scorsese kept working on other films for the next 30-ish years, all the while trying to find a way to get this film made. He knew the importance of bringing this film to life with real sets and costumes.
As I have written about before, practical effects and sets are something I find to be cinema at its best. If something tangible is there, it gives the film a much more hypnotic quality that allows the viewer to buy the story they are watching. What I did not know about this film initially is just how much Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti took this to heart and the lengths they went to achieve such a high degree of realism. Following the footsteps of fellow classic Italian directors like Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, Scorsese decided to shoot the film in the legendary hub of Italian cinema, the Cinecittà studio in Rome. Using this space, Dante Ferretti built OVER A MILE of accurate 19th century New York. That’s the amount of detail Scorsese wanted for the film and oh boy did that pay off.
The opening shot of the Dead Rabbits going to war is pure beauty. Their massive multistoried underground lair put me in awe and it is then followed up with the equally impressive snow streets filling up with the blue clad Nativists. I immediately thought, I was wrong about this film. I was so excited to be back into it. The battle begins and Scorsese’s most essential collaborator, his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, begins her frantic and quick pace to the violence. Everything seems to be hitting on all cylinders for me when the film begins to fall apart. Suddenly the score descends into this strange industrial rock and while I love the visuals, the music seems to undercut everything that is going on onscreen. It just feels so disjointed and bloated in that moment.
That is my biggest problem with the movie. Scorsese’s reach far exceeds his grasp. Even though the set up is fantastic, the follow-through just doesn’t pay up. The movie wants to be too many things at once ( a gang war, a revenge tale, a snap shot of a certain time and place, a love story etc, etc.) and all this extra weight inevitably drags it down.
For starters, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is not an interesting protagonist. His personality is nonexistent and his only motivation is to revenge his father. Furthermore, this lack of depth only seems to enhance every other character, big or small. While that can be a good thing in some films, for a movie that is 3 1/2 hours long, spending that much time with someone so boring really makes you feel it. Every voiceover Amsterdam gives adds nothing to the story and scenes where he is grappling over his desire to kill Bill feels like a laborious task until we get another character on the screen. I felt more connected to Amsterdam’s father in the opening 10 minutes of the film than I did with his son. In fact, in the process of writing this review I had to look his name up again because I had forgotten it in the two weeks since watching the film.
What makes it even more difficult is that he has to share the screen with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher. A character so well developed, articulated, and acted that even as the jingoistic villain you end up feeling more attached to him than Amsterdam. Day-Lewis brings a James Cagney-like intensity and charm to the role, leaving you in a state of precarious anxiety . A flip of a dime is all the time it takes for his character to move from seeming kind and nurturing to deranged and murderous. No one is safe, but thats ok!–All you want to do is watch him chew scenery around every actor onscreen and he delivers in spades.
The way Day-Lewis makes Bill move is the stuff of legend. Every single action he takes feels fully realized. I could watch him carve meat for a solid 5 minutes because of how much dedication he puts into it. His voice is unlike anything I have ever heard before and I get a certain glee hearing him spit platitudes “I’ll festoon my bedchamber with his guts!” It’s a completely engrossing transformation and something that I will always come back to.
Part of the reason the movie succeeds with Bill and a lot of character’s accents and actions is simply the amount of research put into the film. The painstaking care put into the dialogue and setting is reason enough to watch the film. Tim Monich reconstructed the dialectics of these people using letters, poems, and even wax cylinder recordings just to get everything correct. The characters speak in full idioms of the time and it really does add a layer of richness to the film. Even though I thought Leo’s accent as Amsterdam was horrible initially, upon learning it’s a hybrid of an Irish-born boy raised in America, I thought it was an incredibly thought out choice. All of these things really bring the world to life and without it, I don’t think the movie would work at all.
One of the best of these historic flourishes is Jim Broadbent as the real life “Boss” Tweed. In the film, “Boss” Tweed is a crooked politician working with Bill and whomever else will help him secure his base of power. Broadbent plays Tweed with the perfect amount of slime and sneakiness that is required. He uses Bill as the weapon he is and manages to live, which is a feat unto itself. What’s most interesting about the movie is that Scorsese knows Tweed and the politicians are the real villains of the movie. They are profiteering the most from the bloodshed and make no qualms about working with anyone so long as it secures their power. Sadly this isn’t explored enough past Tweed using Irish immigrants to vote for him in droves. The movie only hints at what could have been a meaty, and fascinating exploration of political and classist themes. Even when the US military becomes involved in the film in the final act, it feels a little rushed and without too much attention given.
But that’s the whole final act of the film for you, it seems like it ran out of steam. While the end fight scene between Bill and Amsterdam in the smoke is satisfying on a visual level, I felt nothing. For all the build up, I did not experience a sense of closure. History had simply repeated itself, and the repetition felt hollow, i.e. Unlike the beginning of the film where you felt galvanized and excited by the confrontation of two formidable leaders, the ending feels merely necessary in a narrative sense, where else could the film go? All the themes seemed brushed under the rug and while I get that Scorsese is trying to harp on the fact that this story was forgotten during history, it doesn’t pay off in the film. The violence and savagery that built America is there but it still feels incomplete in a weird way.
Gangs of New York is a movie of many themes, including: racism, corruption, politics, nationalism, urban expansion, and at least ten other things. That’s kind of the problem though, he never fully unpacks one thing. For example, even though the immigration theme highly present at the front of the film, it never amounts to much besides surface level. If taken a step further, it really could be more impactful today with the huge focus on immigration. While the inclusion of so many themes and issues of the day works wonders in establishing the time period these characters are living in–the movie looks amazing–it is not enough to carry the convoluted narrative. I don’t really fault him though because what he tries to accomplish in the scope of one movie is very ambitious and I wish I could see people take more risks like him.
All in all though, I really like what Scorsese was going for in the movie and the parts where it works does wonders. It may be a bloated mess at times but it’s a real piece of cinema I can latch onto. The visuals, the attention to detail, and the acting all make it a worthwhile piece of your time. For a long time, I thought Scorsese’s only truly great film of the 21st century was The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) since it was such an insane epic for him to make but now I see that this is his second best for the very same reason. While I think The Departed (2006) and Hugo (2011) are easier films to watch, I like the cinematic craft of Gangs so much more. The messiness of the film works for me now because I can see just how much effort Scorsese and team went through to make it. While it’s not a film I am going to pop on for pure enjoyment, I idolize the craft that made it. I’m glad it’s on the list and glad Scorsese finally got to make his dream project.
P.S. I still think “The Hands That Built America” is a truly terrible song and an awful way to end the movie. The ending shot was powerful enough.