Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

04Jun11

Daniel Day-Lewis (Bill Cutting), Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Jim Broadbent (William Tweed), Liam Neeson (Priest Vallon), Brendan Gleeson (Walter McGinn). Screenplay by Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Stephen Zaillian. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 18. Running time: 167 minutes.

So if you ever get the privilege of visiting Manhattan and you manage to venture further south than Times Square, now you know what you’ll be walking on. Mulberry Street in Little Italy today may be bustling with Italian restaurants, but rewind the clock 150 years and it was at the centre of the slum of the universe. If Travis Bickle thought 1970s New York was an open sewer, he should have at least recognised the progress from a century before. At the height of the Civil War and the Great Famine, this East Coast island wasn’t a city. In the words of one of the film’s main characters, it was a furnace. Irish, Chinese, Negro and Native were mixed into a melting pot waiting to boil over, and anarchy was the unbearable norm.

This is the time period Gangs of New York is set in, and if you ever needed a reminder of humanity’s barbarous past, the peace and security of the past fifty years definitely being the exception, then this will be like a bludgeon to the brain nailing in the truth. If you dislike your neighbours nowadays, you set up a nationalist party. If you enter disputes, you settle your differences in law courts. But if either of those issues arose in 19th Century New York, you resorted to knives and meat cleavers, and fought it out on the streets.

Take that as the cue, then, for the safe arrival of the first of those two eternal Scorsese themes: raw, naked machismo exploding in front of your eyes. Normally his avenue is the Mafia, and once it was the energy of the boxing ring. Now it’s men with a disposition to go gory that makes his past characters look like pussies. The death count reaches new limits, and there’s blood all along the way.

Second, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis providing us with the obligatory madman, and his performance is quite outrageous. He’s built for big roles like this. Can you imagine him playing anyone but a main man in control of the show? Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting runs the rough end of New York, roaring out nationalist rhetoric and spitting on anything getting in his way. This is a man so ashamed of himself for looking away from his near-killer that he cut out his eyeball. It’s a man who would rather die young fighting to protect America from immigrant-influence, than to live quietly to an old age.

I haven’t mentioned the story, but it is a huge one. The film’s undoubtedly as much about an overwhelmingly vivid history lesson as it is about the narrative, but that doesn’t mean the narrative’s not there. In the midst of a million hints as to the nature of life back then in the city, amongst the scummy streets Scorsese literally recreated (and sacrificed his paycheque to complete), there’s a story to add to the detail that serves as an end in itself, and it’s a classic David and Goliath tale. DiCaprio plays the son of the leader of an Irish gang who’s killed in battle by The Butcher. Years later, now a man with secret roots, he finds himself with little choice but to accept his father’s gang has been outlawed and that Bill now runs the show. Yet he ends up close to Bill, confused by his mixture of affection and hatred for him. The tension dominates the film, and DiCaprio and Lewis play off each other quite remarkably. They heighten the intensity of a world that’s already bursting at its seams with realism.

And that, ultimately, is the source of the magic. So often I’m in love with Scorsese’s movies because of that masterful moving camera, and the ever-perfect musical touches. It’s the filmmaking style that makes GoodFellas so irresistible. But here it’s not about that. The camera goes a lot quieter; the music, of course, hardly rock and roll. And the result is a historical epic committed to being just that: an insanely ambitious portrayal of a time period we could otherwise only read about. With the help of Day-Lewis, giving a performance so primitive as to surely make the younger De Niro proud, the result is one where Scorsese the easily discernible auteur takes a backseat, allowing the sets and stars to speak for themselves. The creation is a special one, just like the creation of that unique metropolis we see slowly constructed in the ending credits: the New York skyline rises up decade by decade, and the past is put to bed once again.

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