Scorsese is after an epic, settling for nothing less than a majestic view of a city being born.

GANGS OF NEW YORK

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


           

“Gangs of New York ” takes an hour too long to deliver Martin Scorsese’s vision of lower New York in Lincoln ’s time, but the overkill certainly confirms his contention that the 19th century was the most brutal in American history.  The currency of discussion in this world is personal justice administered by knife blades of all kinds.  It is certainly the most relentlessly graphic personal cruelty I have seen on the screen.

            Around 20th street, the elite live in the uptown splendor Scorsese once visualized for us in Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.”  Downtown, at Five Points, the cultural cauldron of American-born New Yorkers is stirred by Billy “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).  Billy is fighting to keep New York pure, by enforcing the laws he and his followers have laid down.  Forget law, order, justice, or police.  The gangs of New York are fighting for supremacy and for their own set of principles.  It’s the native-born vs. the Irish immigrants who are pouring off ships onto the docks of New York .

            Here is Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) already ruling Tamanny Hall, buying the votes of the new immigrants.  There is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), back in New York as an adult with vengeance seared in his soul.  As a little boy, his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) was killed in a gang war by Billy Cutting, and now Amsterdam is after the blood of his father’s killer.

            Scorsese is after an epic, settling for no less than a majestic view of a city being born.  We can believe that it is corrupt and lawless, but do we really believe the degree of it?  I can believe crooked fireman and cops; and we all know that people gathered to cheer hangings; we know the mark of men lay in their derring-do with knives, hatchets and cleavers  before guns allowed them to kill from a distance.   But do we really believe that the Dead Rabbits (newly arrived Irish Catholics) and the Nativists (American born warriors) lined up at Five Points armed with clubs (notched with kills), and cleavers to fight hand-to-hand until the leader of one of these tribes killed the other?  I’m not so sure.  The whole movie invites historical inspection.

            Even if you believe it, does it work?  Not really.  Day-Lewis, DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are the only characters who come alive.  Except for the inevitable and fatal meeting between the two tribal chiefs, a mirror image of the opening scene, there is no compelling story line.  Scorsese is far more interested in the culture, the setting and the time than he is in the characters themselves who are merely passing through history.  Instead of stepping off the ships into American mobility, immigrants were more likely to step into Tamanny Hall, the Civil War draft, or a local gang war.  This is a rich tapestry with a lot of maybe/maybe not threads running through it.  Skeptics, take arms.

 


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