|Gangs of New York|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 01 July 2003|
It has been said that history is written in blood, a theory that “Gangs of New York” bears out. Director Martin Scorsese and writers Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, working from Cocks’ story (inspired, Scorsese mentions in the commentary, by a non-fiction tome that gives the film its name), blend documented incident with fiction to create a tapestry that vividly illustrates how many clashing forces, hammering ferociously at each other, all contribute to the nature of a nation. “Gangs” is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts -- we are awed and moved by Scorsese’s epic scope and vision (and by the prodigious amount of information he uses to fill each frame), but while we can respect both the extraordinary technical skill of the filmmakers and the classic form of the story arcs, the main characters are so archetypal that they never fully draw us in to their struggles as individuals.
A prologue shows us a monumental street battle in New York’s Five Points ghetto between immigrant-hating “Natives” led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the Irish immigrant Dead Rabbit gang headed by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Natives triumph, with Bill personally killing Vallon, but Vallon’s young son is spared and sent away to a terrifying school. Renaming himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), Vallon’s son, now a young man, returns to the Five Points in 1862, bent on revenge against his father’s killer. In a ploy out of Shakespeare, Amsterdam works his way into Bill’s confidence. Bill, not knowing Amsterdam’s true identity, comes to rely on the newcomer, even viewing him as a surrogate son, while Amsterdam begins responding to Bill’s mentorship despite himself. The youth also falls for feisty prostitute Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who has her own connection to Bill. Other key figures in the story include the historical personage of Tammany Hall politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Vallon’s old warrior-for-hire comrade “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) and Amsterdam’s childhood friend Johnny (Henry Thomas) who now works for Bill. Immigrants pouring in from the docks and the U.S. government’s thirst for Union soldiers to fight against the rising Confederacy down South play a huge role in what happens to all of the characters, even those who are so immersed in their own problems that they don’t pay much heed to what’s going on around them until they literally have no choice.
“Gangs of New York” is so filled with event and detail, depicted with such bravura and expertise, that we become immersed in the world Scorsese shows us. Showing the Dead Rabbit gang members ritualistically preparing for combat in caves below the Five Points prior to facing the Natives on the one hand underscores the ancient, tribal nature of warfare and on the other hand manages to seem natural rather than incongruous to the era and location. The political scene of the day is also made fascinating, not least because Broadbent’s practical Tweed is one of the most memorable here, endlessly self-serving yet remarkably sensible.
Day-Lewis, nominated for a Actor Oscar for his work here, puts total conviction into Bill’s vibrating rage and bone-deep defensiveness. He effectively shows us that Bill’s monstrousness is the only response he can make to the losses that have marred his existence, without losing sight of the fact that he is indeed a monster. The character furthers the feel of Shakespearean tragedy with the flaws of a classical villain -- pride, wrath and the desire for a worthy adversary -- that advance the action but at times defy common sense.
In contrast, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is defined by the absence of certain faults -- he is heroic because he’s able withstand torture without breaking, to lead without being a sadist and without blind hatred of everyone who isn’t just like him (he has a black lieutenant), though he does play up the Us vs. Them sentiments of his fellow immigrants. This aside, we don’t get a sense of him as a singular power, someone who can inspire his fellow men to cast their caution aside and follow him into danger.
The conflict between Amsterdam and Bill is undeniably cinematic and crafted with due care for dramatic emphasis, but it doesn’t have the idiosyncracies that make us feel that something irreplaceable and human will vanish from the world if we lose either or both men (which is a feeling one hopes the leads in a three-hour drama will generate). Even so, we are viscerally bound up in their time and place. Scorsese, his writers and production team make us feel the grime of the streets and the danger of the surroundings -- we are impressed and at times even overwhelmed by the writhing environment and we absolutely get a feel of the bristling peril therein. We just never feel we’re in personal emotional jeopardy. The most intricate characters are supporting -- it would be great to see more of Broadbent’s wily Tweed and Gleeson’s philosophical fighter.
The “Gangs of New York” DVD release is a two-disc set. Unlike many of these, “Gangs” actually splits the film itself over both discs at a little over the halfway mark (Disc 2 begins with the scene when Bill pays a nocturnal visit to Amsterdam and the sleeping Jenny). Color and sound are gorgeous on both from the very beginning -- Chapter 1 on Disc 1 has brilliant but not bleedingly white snow and vivid red blood. Chapter 2 on Disc 2 has some extraordinary color distinctions, with bright costumes registering beautifully yet not contradicting the somewhat sepia lighting in a Chinese-style den of gentlement’s entertainment.
A subtle, rasping sound as the film begins turns out to be the scraping of a razor against beard growth and as other elements are added -- dialogue, other ambient noises, scoring -- they are layered but distinct. When the two sides draw their weapons in preparation for battle, the hiss and clang of blades being unsheathed is enormous. The sounds of conflict actually become slightly muted yet are still entirely discernible as Howard Shore’s score solemnly sweeps over the growing carnage. There’s a bit of sibilance in the dialogue sequence at the start of Chapter 1, Disc 2, probably because there is absolutely no ambient noise in the room at all -- Bill is seated and Amsterdam listens motionless in an already quiet environment. Chapter 5 has a nice segue from utter, dreamlike silence to soft voices and mournful Gaelic vocals over spare accompaniment and Chapter 12 creates a terrific sense of distance with the sonics of the sequence, not only having distant cannons blast in the mains and detonate in the rears, but allowing enough time between firing and impact to make us feel the length of the cannonballs’ trajectories.
Director Scorsese provides lively, wonderfully informative and informed commentary, encompassing both American and filmic history, anecdotes about filmmaking in general and “Gangs” in particular and the information that DiCaprio was first brought to Scorsese’s attention in the early ‘90s by Scorsese’s frequent colleague Robert De Niro.
Extras are on both discs, though Disc 1 gets the lion’s share. There’s a featurette on set design, with an interview with production designer Dante Ferretti, an exploration of the sets with Scorsese and Ferretti (featuring a fun “360-degree” pop-up feature that allows the viewer to pan around the set with a fish-eye lens), a costume design featurette in which designer Sandy Powell and actor Day-Lewis talk intelligently about the collaboration between costumer and actor and how apparel can shape a performance, a “History of the Five Points” featurette with observations by historian Luc Sante, Scorsese, DiCaprio, Gleeson and Neeson and a text-based Five Points Study Guide with a history of the environment and a glossary of period slang. Disc 2 contains the Discovery Channel’s “making-of” special and U2’s appealing (if two-channel) music video for their end credits song “The Hands That Built America.”
“Gangs of New York” is a fully-realized piece that puts swift-flowing action and narrative together with a rush of details that range from enormous (the draft riots) to the minute (lit candles placed on corpses as a courtesy to the living) that make us feel as though we are living for awhile within the film’s world. We never feel in our hearts as concerned as we might about the people we spend the most time with while we’re there, but we’re absorbed by what happens and what we see and hear all the same.