Gangs of New York
by Jon Bastian
Scorsese’s epic telling of one of the nation’s earliest power struggles is brought to life brilliantly.
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Gangs of New York is an intimate yet epic tale of the simmering ethnic disagreements that gnaw at the core of the Big Apple, simultaneously a very personal story of would-be revenge and a primer in the background of one of the worst incidents of civil unrest the United States has ever seen. With painstaking attention to period detail in costumes, sets and dialogue (though, strangely, not always musical score) Scorsese recreates 1862 Manhattan, and not for a moment does his nearly three-hour film drag. His ending also defies all expectations, revealing at last the director’s sleight-of-hand in making his viewers commit, in a way, the same error his characters have. Unfortunately, ninety per cent of his audiences probably won’t get that.
It’s a compelling ride, but not for everyone. Scorsese is wise enough to trust us, for the most part, so he doesn’t bother to explain history, he just shows us. If you have no idea why Boss Tweed was important or what Tammany Hall was; if you don’t know why the Conscription Act was such a big deal to Irish immigrants; if you’re vague on why the American Civil War was really fought (and why it really had nothing to do with stopping slavery), then you’ll probably find yourself adrift and lost. Scorsese drops us in running, as “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson, The Phantom Menace, Schindler’s List) prepares for… something, his young son at his side, the rest of the folk in an (appropriately) rabbit warren of a building doing the same, building up to what turns out to be a pre-arranged gang war. Vallon represents the Dead Rabbits, the recent Irish immigrants. They are opposed by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot, Last of the Mohicians) and his gang, who call themselves natives with no sense of irony. (The real Natives are, naturally, nowhere in sight.) In the course of the battle, Bill kills Vallon in front his son. Sixteen years later, that son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can, Titanic) returns from reform school intent on revenge.
It’s a simple premise, but one with very complex relationships. Bill is not a salivating villain and Amsterdam is not a shining hero. In fact, Bill isn’t necessarily all that bad a man, just as Amsterdam isn’t necessarily all that noble. When Amsterdam falls for an attractive pickpocket, Jenny (Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky, Charlie’s Angels), who has an unexplained connection to Bill, it just gets more complicated. Bill’s open and glowing admiration for Amsterdam’s father adds to the tension.
The recreation of the era is impeccable, and nothing has been made politically correct nor sanitized. Certain forbidden words for various races and nationalities abound here, and not just from the mouths of villains. The script also abounds with the colorful slang of the era, much of it not explained but clear in context. At the same time, there are wonderful plus ça change moments, as when one Irishman listens to another with a different accent and exclaims, “Doesn’t anybody in New York speak English anymore?” On the east coast, that’s guaranteed to get a big laugh.
Ken Lonergan, whose work I raved about in You Can Count on Me, is credited with Jay Cocks and Steve Zaillian for the screenplay, but Lonergan’s touch is all over it as we are shown things with little explanation. A brief scene involving the politically necessary hanging execution of four men tells us much more about how those particular men came to be on the gallows than is ever spoken aloud, and the opening sequence builds on itself with no explanatory dialogue whatsoever until we explode onto the streets of Five Points and the middle of the action.
The performances all around are exceptional, and don’t be surprised if Daniel Day-Lewis snags an Oscar nomination come February. DiCaprio sheds his pretty-boy image here and Diaz shows true depth. They’re supported by a raft of amazing players, including Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Iris) as Boss Tweed, and John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Henry Thomas (E.T., All the Pretty Horses) and Brendan Gleeson (A.I., Mission Impossible 2) as gang members of various and shifting loyalties.
Emotionally, Gangs of New York is gripping. Danger is always lurking, as are the thieves in the streets. It also bears a message, although a subtle one, but one well-worth repeating during times like these. Cities like New York will always have their gangs — if you think the phenomenon was invented in the 80s, you haven’t been paying attention. However, the real villains are not the various gang-bangers and thugs. They do what they do because they are manipulated into doing so. Those who have nothing to lose are used against each other by those who have everything to lose. Keep the poor fighting amongst themselves, and they’ll never become a danger to the rich.
When they do… well, Gangs of New York shows us what happens.
Jon Bastian is a film, television and playwright living in his native Los Angeles.
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