Gangs of New York is a 2002 action movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz. The entire film is set in 19th-century New York’s infamous Five Points neighborhood. The story focuses on Amsterdam Vallon’s (DiCaprio) quest for revenge following the murder of his father (Liam Neeson[s]) at the hands of Bill “the Butcher” Cutter (Day-Lewis).
In 1846, Amsterdam is a boy who witnesses the defeat of his father’s Irish street-gang at the hands of the Natives, led by Cutter. He is sent to a Protestant orphanage to matriculate and disappear. In 1863, he is discharged from the orphanage. As he leaves, he throws the Bible he was given into the river in a defiant gesture. Upon returning to the Five Points, he rejects the Protestantism inculcated in him at the orphanage in favor of his Irish Catholic roots. While his narration makes clear that he intends all the while to avenge his father and people, he plays along at working for the Butcher, intending to earn his trust.
The plot is pretty straightforward revenge-narrative. As I said, the narration dispels any potential ambiguity. In general, most people don’t seem to enjoy narration, but I’ve always found it enjoyable. It does make things too obvious, but there are some nice details about the time and place and it can help make sense of a messy story. Overall, the plot is easily the weakest element of the movie. It is unsurprising and without much nuance. At times it also just does not make sense. I won’t spoil it, but for me, and most people I’ve talked to about this one, there was more than one eyebrow-raising scene.
An obvious strength of the movie is its unique setting. Scorsese’s directing does a marvelous job at portraying the dregs of 19th-century New York slum life. It is an often-overlooked part of history, when different tribes of people fought for control and space to live in the still-unclaimed city (and country). As portrayed in this movie, these people came from all over the world and held all sorts of creeds they were intent on propagating. The squares and brothels and fires and fights are shown in great detail, though there should have been more about the different tribal cultures. The accents are muddled and intriguing, while the different faces and clothes and hair are captivating.
The other strength of the movie is Day-Lewis’s acting. He is flat-out phenomenal. Every scene he is in is charged with his charisma and vocal power. Physically, his presence is impossible to look away from. His character is awful and fascinating. He manages to give a cold-hearted murderer who’s bent on keeping foreigners out of “his country” incredible depth and sensitivity. It is really worth watching the movie just to see what he’s doing in the places he’s doing it in.
Much of the rest of the movie pales in comparison. DiCaprio is fine, but isn’t particularly good and doesn’t have much to work with. Diaz plays the dame, who the writers didn’t think to give much else to define her aside from the stereotype. Nor does her acting lift her above the fray. The end however, does take you somewhere else. You go from a concentrated revenge story to something broader and deeper. Scorsese shows the draft riots and how they destroyed the city so it could be rebuilt. At the movie’s conclusion is a wide-angle lens view of New York, in more ways than one. It has to be seen to be believed.
Photo: © 2010 Miramax