DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Gangs of New York

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson


By Alan Bacchus

Gangs of New York divided audiences in 2002. It received 10 Oscar nominations in most of the major categories. Some critics called it the best film of the year. Many, like me, knowing the storied history of this ‘dream project’ for Scorsese, had high expectations and were disappointed with the result. Thus, the majority of people consider the film a rare Scorsese failure.

After a nine-year break I beg everyone to reconsider. This is a terrific picture!

Gangs opens with a pulsating introduction to the “Dead Rabbits” gang. Liam Neeson, an Irish priest, is preparing to go to battle. His little son follows him around watching him gather all his troops and warriors. Their battle tools are unsophisticated – knives, axes, hammers and other bludgeoning objects. As they walk through a series of underground fire-lit caves we still aren’t even sure when or where they are. Is it the Middle Ages? It’s only until after the camera pulls out from the bloody battleground that we realize it’s Manhattan in 1846.

The opening is backstory to the film, which takes place 16 years after this famous battle and finds the priest’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio), returning home to find his father’s killer, the infamous Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Revenge doesn’t come easy though. Bill has become a de facto gang leader of the community, and with a new alliance with the city’s de facto politic leader, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (Jim Broadbent), he is now an untouchable.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. The film isn’t so much about gangs as it is about the city of New York. Gangs does what the best epic films do, weigh the big story equally with the small story.

The smaller story is about the evolving relationship of Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Valone. Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal as Bill. His casting and performance in There Will Be Blood is clearly influenced by his work in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis is so good that his performance was a detriment to my first experience with the film. His exaggerated mannerisms chew the scenery and suck all the attention of every scene onto him. Lost in the shuffle is a fine performance from Leonardo Di Caprio, who channels Hamlet-like qualities with his character’s indecisiveness. Like the Danish prince, Amsterdam wants to make a statement with Bill’s death. He says, “When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.” And so when Amsterdam becomes one of Bill's disciples, he finds himself admiring his enemy, complicating even further his indecision and blurring the line between hero and villain.

The bigger story is equally fascinating. During the Civil War, when the country was divided between North and South, New York was on its own – not neutral, but autonomous – like a separate colony within the country. And even within the city, everyone was autonomous, which is where the ‘gangs’ in the title comes from. Like the country itself, New York was constantly at war. So, Gangs is also about the birth of New York and its relationship with the rest of the country.

The finale, which takes place during the famous draft riots, is a great piece of writing – a scene that brings together the big story and the small story. Just as Amsterdam is about to face off with Bill, the riot starts and the federal police fight back. Amsterdam gets his revenge, but he’s alone with the man without the fanfare he once foresaw. Bill the Butcher, one of the great villains in screen history, dies with honour, neither a hero nor a villain. Enjoy.


Anonymous said...

I recall thinking at the time that Day-Lewis should've won best actor for this film instead of Adrien Brody for The Pianist. I'm not sure if I would agree with that assessment if I were to watch both films again today, but it certainly is a riveting performance.

Alan Bacchus said...

I do think that Day-Lewis's performance is better than There Willl Be Blood.