Scorsese realizes a brilliantly scathing social drama set in mid-1800s New York
Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly tumultuous Gangs of New York begins with a near-epic street fight in 1846 and ends with an even bigger one in the Civil War year of 1863. There is an almost medieval ferocity to the opening battle in particular, and the feudal nature of politics in mid-19th-century New York is one of the richest themes in the whole of this richly detailed period drama.
But for all the savagery and gore of those battle sequences, the film is primarily a scathing social drama that brings an appalling phase of American history vividly to life and back into the light. Its principal characters are caught up in a protracted episode of revenge and retribution, but that central plot thread is itself swept up in the brawling spectacle of a viciously divided urban area, the “Five Points” neighborhood on the Lower East Side, convulsed in the crossfire of several smaller and very localized civil wars.
The foreground figures in all this are “Bill the Butcher,” the Five Points’ warlord and power broker who goes into battle wielding a meat cleaver and a knife, and “Amsterdam” Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio), an Irish “boyo” whose father (Liam Neeson) was killed by Bill back in 1846. While Amsterdam waits for the moment to exact his revenge, a perverse, bloodthirsty father-son bond develops between the two of them.
Day-Lewis, mustachioed and spouting impromptu oratory in a proto-"New Yorkese” accent, makes an exceptionally well-defined figure of evil. And Di Caprio does creditable work as the scruffy, and increasingly conflicted, protagonist. Their story gives the film its main emotional hook, but Scorsese never lets things devolve into melodrama of a merely personal sort. Above all, the film has its eye on an emblematic episode in American history, the convulsions of which tell us several disturbing things about the “back story” of modern America.
Apart from Day-Lewis’ performance, the film’s strongest points are in its bristling recreation of a barbaric phase of New York’s not-so-distant history and in its evocation, both grand and grungy, of deep-seated animosities that continue to bubble to the surface in the United States, even as the official culture struggles to repress them. A montage of shoreline shots (the Lower East Side seen from Brooklyn) makes the point that Old New York and the latest version of the “new” America are not all that far apart.
Cameron Diaz is good in a sort of demo-sequence on the art of picking pockets, but she is not particularly effective in her quasi-romantic scenes with Di Caprio. Gruffly puckish Jim Broadbent is very good as Tammany Hall kingpin Boss Tweed, but Scorsese and his screenwriters make less than they might have of another real-life figure in the story, P. T. Barnum.
At times, Gangs of New York looks like a weird amalgam of The Godfather and Braveheart. But its picture of the tangled ethnic, racial, and religious conflicts beneath the surface of modern American culture is distinctive and, in the history of American movies, bracingly unique.