#516: Gangs of New York
A gritty tale of 1860s immigrant life? Or just an incoherent mess?
Initial release: December 20, 2002
Director: Martin Scorsese
“America was born in the streets,” reads the tagline on the poster for Martin Scorsese’s gritty immigrant drama-cum-gang movie, Gangs of New York. Combined with the title, the intended meaning is clear: everything that makes America, America, is rooted in violence and struggles for territory — be it the petty crime of a street thug in New York City, or the government-sanctioned massacres of indigenous populations, or white supremacists fighting slightly more embarrassed white supremacists over the right to own human beings, to the tune of over half a million dead by the end of the Civil War.
Or maybe it’s not as high-minded as all that; released in 2002, a year after the September 11th attacks that, for a decade and change, drove much of the Western hemisphere out of its collective mind, Gangs of New York’s broader theme of American-born-and-bred nativists who viewed Irish and other predominantly Catholic immigrants looking for better lives as interlopers and invaders certainly feels like an unsubtle commentary on post-9/11 anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Using the Civil War and the 1863 Draft Riots as the backdrop, Gangs of New York tells the tale of an Irish immigrant named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio,) returned to the hell world of the Five Points neighborhood after 16 years in an orphanage after his gang leader father was killed in a fateful battle against the racist Natives gang, led by William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis,) a man charmingly known as the Butcher for the fact that is, in fact, a butcher, but also has an affinity for using knives and cleavers to hurt people. Amsterdam, now a man, is relatively anonymous in Five Points, with its self-appointed ruler the Butcher unaware of Amsterdam’s connection to his old enemy. Amsterdam intends to use this to get close to the Butcher, gain his confidence, and, one day, kill him — but as always, things get in the way, one of them being the Tammany Hall political machine and the growing protest over the United States pushing fresh-off-the-boat immigrants into service in the Civil War.
There’s also Jenny, a young thief whose M.O. involves dressing up as a maid and robbing rich houses blind; Amsterdam’s infatuation with her is what ultimately gets him in trouble, but by the time the film laboriously gets around to its final act, the relationship stops meaning anything in terms of the story as the draft riots coincide with another good old fashioned gang war.
And that’s kind of the biggest problem with this film. It’s a movie that’s more theme, setting, atmosphere, than message. While Amsterdam’s gang includes a single token black guy, whose presence in a Catholic church triggers a tense stand-off between Amsterdam’s gang and the nativists, most of the characters, Irish and otherwise, are gleefully racist, and have zero interest in going down to fight other white folk in the name of ending slavery. Ultimately, if you took away the stuff about immigration and the draft this could just as easily be about gang wars in 1860s London — it certainly has plenty of the right kind of shitty accents.
There’s a persistent lack of focus that dogs this film, as we move from one scene to the next with not a lot to really give a sense of the passage of time. Amsterdam is the protagonist, but by being yet another generic Young Angry Asshole that comprises most of DiCaprio’s roles at the time, he is by far the least interesting character, especially opposite Cutter, who’s charming, funny, and terrifyingly, unpredictably violent — and viciously xenophobic. Like some kind of nationalist Joker. I would much rather have seen a film about Cutter and his downfall rather than what boils down to another generic revenge film.
At nearly three hours, Gangs of New York has quite a lot in it, but it’s all spectacle and flash and occasional absurdities such as warring private firefighting companies beat the shit out of each other while the house they came to ostensibly save burns down. Scorsese’s cinematography is impeccable, and Daniel Day-Lewis is unquestionably the high point of the film, but it’s not enough to effectively string together a ropey script that feels like a series of vignettes than a coherent narrative. It desperately tries to link the themes of immigration and nativism with the Civil War backdrop, but for all it wants to say something, it doesn’t actually know what to say.
If you’re looking to watch a movie about colorful gangs beating the shit out of each other in a hellish New York, you’re better off watching the 1979 Walter Hill classic The Warriors.