Gangs of New York Review
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Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Gangs of New York is a failed anti-war
film. It is 165 minutes of some of the most violent footage ever seen in a film intended for mainstream entertainment. As a fan of Scorsese’s, I have to say that even the brutality of Good Fellas could not have prepared me for the assault that is the experience of watching this film. Even leaving aside the violence, I admit that I am mystified by all the hoopla surrounding Gangs of New York. Leonardo Di Caprio only slightly adapts the role he had in Titanic. Now instead of a sweet Irish immigrant, he is a nasty one. Cameron Diaz appears to have thought the Irish accent was optional, as it fades in and out about every fifth word. For his part, Daniel Day-Lewis looks and sounds too much like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo to be truly convincing.
Worse, the film is so thematically confusing that it is at first not clear what Scorsese is trying to say. To be sure the choice of material is worthy. The plight of working class immigrants in 19th century New York City, and the Draft Riots of 1863 have, to my knowledge, been given no filmic attention. Even more intriguing are the possibilities inherent in Scorsese’s observations about the interplay between the nativist sentiments embodied in Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Bill the Butcher, and the corruption of the US government. Taking place as it does during the American Civil War when Boss Tweed held New York City in his grip, the film’s setting certainly provides ample opportunity for some reflections on these important topics. In fact, I think the message of this film is as disturbing as the way it is told. It would seem that Scorsese intended to make a film that was anti-war, but ended up with one that is anti-government and anti-law.
In brief, Gangs of New York is the story of two rival gangs, one
“nativist” lead by Bill the Butcher. The other, a group of Irish immigrants called “The Dead Rabbits” initially lead by a man called “The Priest Vallon” (Liam Neeson). The Priest meets an early demise at the hands of Bill, and his death is witnessed by his young son, the unlikely named, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio). The son spends the next 16 years in Roman Catholic (St. Amsterdam?) reform school plotting his revenge. It is a familiar story and an almost Shakespearean tragedy (think Hamlet). Upon his release, Amsterdam comes to know and even to like Bill quite well. They are both, in fact, enamored of the same woman, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron
Diaz). This is the only female character of note and her dramatic function appears to be primarily to mitigate Bill and Amsterdam’s almost erotic fixation with one another. (Several critics have complained that her character’s development is abandoned relatively early in the film, and this might explain why). In any event,Amsterdam becomes deeply connected to Bill and ambivalent about the revenge he knows he must exact. In one of the film’s most significant (and least bloody) scenes, Bill, draped in an American flag, sits next to Amsterdam (who happens to be in bed with Jenny at the time) and tells a tale that, though harrowing, explains his enormous respect for Priest Vallon. Vallon, Bill intones, is the only man he has ever killed who was worth killing. Much is made throughout the film of he Priest’s dying words to his son, that one must never “look away.” Indeed, the eyes of an honorable man, Scorsese suggests, are able to look death in the face.
This drama involving male honor and homoeroticism is played against the backdrop of Boss Tweed’s New York. Thus, honor and vigilantism are juxtaposed to chicanery and secrecy, with government and the law representing the latter. It is Boss Tweed who does not look into the faces of his enemies since they change depending on who can further his political career. Scorsese’s shots of immigrants coming off ships that are then loaded with the caskets of dead Union soldiers are cinematically superb as are, I admit, some of the most bloody battles on film. Immigrants no sooner arrive than they are told to sign papers that make them citizens. In the next second, they are conscripted into the army, handed rifles, and sent to fight men with whom they have no quarrel. To depict this irony, the film’s gang sequences are often inter-cut with Civil War battle scenes. America, Scorsese wants to contend, was forged in blood. With this he appears to have no quarrel. What troubles him is the way blood is spilled. On this point, the film has a very definite point of view.
Much is made of the desirability of fighting with ones hands or with
implements like knives and cleavers. Guns, it would seem, do not bring
honor or glory. Likewise, one ought to be connected