This huge, brash, chaotic and thrillingly exuberant picture starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio has been sold to us in every magazine and media outlet as the story of a butcher - an unprincipled villain who cuts and slashes, mangles and chomps: Harvey Weinstein. As all the film world knows, the egregious Miramax producer has hacked down director Martin Scorsese's projected three-hour-plus epic about 19th-century gang warfare in pre-modern New York into a reasonably manageable 168 minutes.
Scorsese himself has a droll silent cameo as a well-to-do householder being ripped off. But it's Weinstein who is residually detectable in almost every frame: crunching the storyline down in the final act so that Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker must have simmered, putting in many a voiceover and flashback to make sure we realise what's going on and who everyone is and, most importantly, keeping DiCaprio's gorgeous chops free from harm. There's a terrible moment when Leo gets horribly headbutted and a white-hot knife blade is pressed to his cheek. Miraculously, the scar has faded to nothing by almost the next scene. You can hear Weinstein pleading: "Please, Marty! Not the face!"
So there are quibbles and quarrels galore to be had with Gangs of New York. But this is a flawed masterpiece we're talking about. Objecting to its faults is like complaining about misaligned spangles on the costume of a strongman who's juggling a dozen buses. It's a movie with a thousand times more energy and life and sheer virility than anything else Hollywood has to offer. Scorsese thinks big, acts big, films big. He unfurls a magnificent, painterly canvas, on which 1846 New York is reimagined as a hyperreal wild west of the east, where the rule of law is patchy at best, peopled with brawling villains in bizarre, dreamlike top hats. Scorsese said he wanted the movie to be like a western set on Mars. It's actually like a Kubrick shocker set in a Henry James or Edith Wharton adaptation, where the dirty mob we might glimpse in the background get star status, and the highfalutin ladies and gentlemen get their windows smashed and sofas torched by feral gangsters.
The linchpin is Day-Lewis, effortlessly upstaging co-stars DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. This is a triumphant return to the screen for Day-Lewis after his five-year break, reputedly partly spent in Florence pursuing the craft of the shoemakers - cobblers, in fact. But who cares what he's been doing with himself when he makes a comeback as stunning as this? He plays William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a terrifying career psychopath and meat merchant with a glass eye that has an American eagle in place of a pupil. It makes a tinkling sound when he taps it with the point of his knife.
Sixteen years before the main action begins, Bill and his gang, the American Nativists, fight an almighty pitched battle against the Catholic Irish immigrants, coming off the boats every day in their thousands. To a war cry of "Down with Roman popery!", Cutting's crew slaughter them and kill their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) - but, with old-fashioned martial gallantry, the Butcher declares that the traditional trophies of the ears and nose of the fallen should not be taken from the priest, who is allowed an unmolested burial. A generation later, with most of the priest's gang now under the Butcher's rule, the priest's son Amsterdam (DiCaprio) emerges from state custody plotting revenge but staying undercover and making himself useful to the Butcher, who sentimentally takes him under his wing as a surrogate son figure.
Day-Lewis has a terrifically evil presence, and takes lip-smacking relish in every line. His accent is a weird mixture of Robert De Niro and Jimmy Durante, radiating guignol menace and barbaric handsomeness, especially when called upon to make an exhibition of himself as the grotesque civic celebrity he has become. Introduced to a society lady, he kisses her perfumed hand like any boulevardier and murmurs: "Orange blossom, delicious." He does a knife-throwing act with his former lover Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) as his cowering subject. As her clothes and skin are sliced, he growls: "Whoop-sie-dai-sie!" The four syllables sound like knife thrusts. In another scene, he demonstrates how to kill a man by stabbing a dead pig in various places, gasping and sweating with exertion. "That's a wound! But that's a kill!" I believed him.
By comparison, DiCaprio holds his end up perfectly satisfactorily but looks callow, and a very great deal of what was originally his character development as he amasses his own tribal following has clearly been lost in the edit. Moreover, perhaps as a result of yearning for post-teen seriousness, or because of a reportedly strained on-set relationship with the director, DiCaprio rarely smiles, which is a pity, because that is when his full leonine beauty and charisma burst out of the screen.
Scorsese has taken us back to a New York before skyscrapers, even before Italians, when Anglo-Saxons and Irish re-enacted ancient sectarian feuds. "On the seventh day the Lord rested," the Butcher explains to Amsterdam, while strolling in the slum-like Five Points district. "He squatted by England and made a mess there called Ireland - no offence," he adds genially to his young Irish Catholic protege. "Oh, none taken," Amsterdam replies, deadpan. The Butcher gang arrogantly calling themselves Natives is all the more ironic, as he is in bed with Jim Broadbent's corrupt politico of Tammany Hall - and Scorsese shows a statue of Tamanen, the American Indian chief who negotiated with colonists over land 150 years before and lent the sleazy Democratic party HQ his name.
Meaner than mean streets have been excavated by Scorsese here: this is an archaeology of desperation, tribal rage and primeval urban energy. DiCaprio actually has a nice moment of insolent puzzlement when a Butcher gang member bafflingly calls him a "fiddlin' Ben"; it's like the classic pool-room fight scene in Mean Streets, when the wise guys try to decide if being called "mook" is an insult.
The director's climactic moment in this urban epic is conflating the final showdown between Amsterdam and the Butcher with the 1863 Draft Riots: a micro- and macro-political explosion as the gangsters mete out their revenge on the ruling classes who can buy their way out of military service and also roar their incorrect loathing of President Lincoln. As the mob is fired on from gunboats, a tactic gratefully borrowed from the British, 1846 New York starts to look like 1945 Berlin. The streets erupt in a saturnalia of lawlessness, to which the director adds an inspired touch: an escaped elephant from Barnum's circus trumpeting down the rubble-strewn streets. Wonderful spectacle, terrific acting and toweringly great film-making.
Gangs of New York, A Film Analysis
- Length: 411 words (1.2 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Bill the Butcher was the ideal "bad guy" for a movie. He was a stubborn individual who would not change his ways of thinking for anyone. If you came off a boat and tried to settle in the United States you were automatically hated by Mr. Cutting. Bill was a tall man, very skinny, and he had long hair with a matching mustache.
Bill and his party believed that the only rightful people to have jobs, families, and make money were people who were born in the U.S., not immigrants. Women and children are not even spared by Bill and his rugged party. They hatred for the immigrants was so strong that they would shout profanities at them or hurl rocks at them when they unloaded from the massive ships. At times they would beat an immigrant close to death just because they looked at them the wrong way. Cutting's father installed these beliefs into him, Bill's father was killed in a gang war with the immigrants and he would never live that down.
The way the immigrants were treated by some of the townspeople made some of the immigrants become very poor. Shop keepers and other store owners would not hire immigrants mainly because they did not like them and secondly that they did not want to upset Bill and his gang. Immigrants would soon leave New York and look for an easier life but most remained behind and lived in the side streets to fend for food with the rats. This is where thievery came in. Since most of the immigrants were poor they had to learn to steal to survive. "Pick-Pocketing" became the most famous means to steal in the streets of New York.
The immigrants who would come off of the boats had no idea what was in store for them as they unloaded their boat. The immigrants were friendly people for the most part, they were not looking for a fight in America just a new start to their life.
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Bill and his gang would greet them at the docks and from their on the immigrants learned to stay as far away as possible from the "Natives." Some of the immigrants joined a gang of their own. They called themselves the "Dead Rabbits." They soon became the second most populated gang in New York behind Bill's "Natives." The immigrants of Dead Rabbits soon learned to hate the Native party as much as the Natives hated them.