Gangs of New York (2002)

D: Martin Scorsese
S: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo Di Caprio

The concluding montage of Martin Scorsese's blood-drenched historical drama is a sequence of images depicting the evolution of the New York skyline. Beginning in 1866, where the film's story ends, the city grows behind the scene of a graveyard improbably housing the bodies of two characters of different faiths. As the graveyard becomes more dilapidated, the message spoken sombrely in voice over by Leonardo Di Caprio, playing the son of one of the dead men and the mortal enemy of the other, is that events which seem to have great significance in their time are all too easily forgotten. It is ironic that Scorsese, long considered as much the psychic documentarian of New York as Woody Allen, chooses to sideline recent history himself: the final shot features the Twin Towers. In a film which attempts to grapple with questions of America's relationship with violence, Scorsese seems to demonstrates less perspective than Michael Moore, who chose to conclude Bowling for Columbine with some of the horrifying footage from 9/11 which has already burned itself into collective memory. Moore's sense of the global context of the legacy of American violence ultimately dwarfs Scorsese's attempts to put it in a national one.

Perhaps the purpose of the final image is not to bring events quite all the way to the present though. Maybe it stops in the 1970s, when the Towers were new and Scorsese was just beginning the fictional portraiture which has arguably reached its apex with Gangs of New York. Certainly the film can be slotted into the director's filmography quite easily, sharing as it does thematic concerns with clan loyalties, conflicting ethical systems, and the machinations behind the scenes of movers and shakers whose decisions ultimately come to dominate the destinies of individual characters regardless of their personal struggles and motivations. This project was a long-cherished one for the director, and he has already put his then contemporary tales of New York life Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in historical perspective with films including Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence, where the same environmental and behavioural patterns could be seen over different generations. It is unfortunate that Gangs of New York is ultimately less rich and layered than any of these other films, and that appreciation on a deeper level is not invited.

Gangs of New York is an Italian co-produced film which cries out to be called an epic. It begs for comparison with films like The Leopard, 1900 or even Once Upon a Time in America. Yet like many such films including Heaven's Gate and Revolution, the dramatic structure does not support the weight of history. Though its characters are larger than life (and are therefore not swamped by the backdrop) and its basic plot is solid enough as genre films go, Gangs of New York is not the definitive chronicle it hopes to be. Too obsessed with its fictive plot and action scenes, it is more gangster film than historical drama, which is not an altogether bad thing from the point of view of its popular appeal. The story (by Jay Cocks) has very little to do with actual history although historical events run through it. Essentially a patrimonial revenge narrative writ large, it is set during the turbulent years of heavy Irish Catholic immigration to New York City. It follows the efforts of young Di Caprio to avenge the murder of his immigrant father Liam Neeson at the hands of self-professed 'nativist' gang lord Daniel Day-Lewis. It is an old story of righteous revenge against a backdrop of social upheaval, but the emphasis in this cut of the film (apparently the first cut ran four hours) is mostly on the revenge.

The conflict between Di Caprio and Day-Lewis cuts a swathe through complex historical material including life in the immigrant slums and the struggle to establish democracy in a country torn by ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic divisions. The film is steeped in detail which re-creates the period, yet it is notably low on a true sense of context. At times its portrayal of gang factions seems more like surreal weirdness of Walter Hill's The Warriors than the delicate delineation of social and familial divisions in The Age of Innocence. Though there are several characteristic Scorsese themes and motifs, most of which seem to arise fairly naturally out of the material, the film seems to have been stripped of substance by an insistence on delivering the basic plot on a level of bombast which obliterates all subtlety. It follows a relatively clean narrative line encompassing elements of the classic gangster movie and the classical tragedies which preceded it. We've seen this story dozens of times before, and there is literally not one plot or character development that has not been telegraphed by precedent. Only the climax confounds expectation by taking away its central characters control over the resolution of the story in the face of the larger social forces which ultimately determine the destiny of the world. Though overstated, the film's dusty showdown (where it segues into Western territory for not the first time) makes the point that what have seemed important divisions and conflicts are ultimately less definitive than they seem to those in the midst of them, and, as in 1900, that its central characters come to resemble two equally insignificant squabbling insects in the face of social and historical change. Mostly though, from its 'son torn between two fathers' dilemma to its depiction of heterosexual relationships, the film bears as much relationship with historical discourse as a romance novel set on the high seas: history is the backdrop, not the subject.

Ironically, this is what is most likely to keep the film afloat at the box office. On the level of simple storytelling, the film works well. It careens from action scene to action scene with occasional groping and one orgy, it keeps tight control over the character arcs (which essentially go nowhere), and with Scorsese's typically dynamic camera movement obliterating any visual semblance of the stately but admittedly dull style expected of historical dramas in general, it is livelier and more physically vigorous than most films of this type. Only one scene has any kind of 'cinematic' resonance, a lovely tracking shot which follows immigrant males arriving from one boat and signing up for citizenship then signing up for the army and being loaded onto another boat straight away even as the coffins of dead Union soldiers are unloaded over their heads. It is such a visually economical moment that it seems even Miramax could not object to its inclusion.

Regardless of how morally repugnant it may seem to have to say it, the film's main selling point is its depiction of violence. Thankfully, violence is also its subject (at least in part). Violence has a particular function in Gangs of New York, and it has a particular style. Many of Scorsese's films have employed a hyberbolic, quasi-expressionistic attitude towards scenes of cruelty and carnage, and this is no exception. In fact the director has taken it to a new level here, literally bathing his characters and their environment in blood which runs in streams. Boasting of a revisionist burlesque villain nicknamed "The Butcher" who actually practices butchery on animals in between occasions of using his tools on human beings, opening with a vicious all-out faction fight with bludgeons, knives and cleavers, and attempting quite consciously to replicate the sensational images of racist carnage during the New York draft riots published in the press of the time, the film has the feel of raw force which it links to its feel for the period.

This very real sense of the destructive capacities of human beings is linked to a thematic concern with the larger context of social, political, and physical force as a means of exerting will over national identity. In this film, violence is power, and as the twists and turns of the plot eventually go to prove, power is violence: possessing the will and the means to exert influence over others is what determines the shape of a nation, literally over the dead bodies of its people. The film's thematic concern with the forging of American identity during the Civil War years is linked to the microcosmic battle for religious and ethnic supremacy in the Five Points of New York (where the bulk of the action takes place). Of course like many portrayals of such conflicts, actual religion and actual ethnicity have very little to do with it as far as on screen representation is concerned. The film paints its cultural frames of reference in very broad strokes, and Irishness in particular serves more as a signifier than an actual subject. Scorsese is naturally conscious of this, and with the film's exaggerated use of signs and symbols (including having Day-Lewis wear a glass eye emblazoned with an American eagle), there is additional meaning in the pronouncement by Brendan Gleeson's character that "We didn't think that our troubles at home would follow us. They didn't. They were waiting for us when we got here." With its faint glimmers even of the spectre of the now dead pre-European culture of the American Indian (reduced to wooden statues in Tamanay Hall), the film is at pains to point out that violence has been endemic to American culture throughout history.

To be fair to Scorsese and Cocks, characters of this period have become so ingrained in the popular imagination as over the top burlesques, it is hardly surprising that the film needs to paint the individuals at the centre of this history in terms so large that they seem unreal. From Day-Lewis' top hat and handlebar moustache to Di Caprio's stripey shirt, details which are probably quite true to period yet which seem faintly silly are offered seemingly in all seriousness alongside performances which also teeter on the brink of gross exaggeration. The production design is spectacular, with Dante Ferretti having particular fun creating a cavernous subterranean environment which is home to the Irish hordes and which becomes the sight of an all-too emblematic Catholic Church (in one of the film's Fordian allusions). The actors also rise to this level of overstatement with as much control as they can. Di Caprio snarls his way through the film with an admirable sense of focus. Day-Lewis towers over the action in a grandly villainous turn which actually transcends the grand guignol. Cameron Diaz is a little more level-headed as a pickpocket who becomes involved in one of those love triangles which this kind of film always tends to have, but her accent wavers alarmingly between high camp Oirish and her own distinctive vocal tones. John C. Reilly see-saws also, but in his case there is some sense that his lapses into stage-Irish friendly aggression are part of his character's means of self-definition. Support from Brendan Gleeson is good but his character is underdeveloped, and other Irish actors including Sean McGinley make appearances so fleeting as to make you wonder why they are there at all (although, amusingly, there are even one or two lines of dialogue in the Irish language).

There has been much talk in the press about the prospect of a DVD special edition which will clear up the mess and give what amounts to a fascinating yet featherweight film some kind of depth. In the wake of The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition, this is perhaps understandable. It does not excuse the deficiencies in the current version of the film though, which will be more important to cinephiles and Scorsese fans than to casual viewers. Certainly this story needs teasing out, in terms of the snippets of historical background which pop up amid the carnage, tricky questions such as race and otherness which the film only touches on (glimpses of African and Chinese enclaves suggest an even broader contextual canvas which has not been used), and in the characterisation which reduces the complexity of interpersonal motivations to desire, jealousy, and revenge. You do get the sense that there may be more to Scorsese's vision of the subject than what you get on screen even though what is there is certainly enough to sustain an epic (there's that word) spectacle (ah!) of purgative bloodletting in which redemption is (eventually) qualified by the tide of history.

Should you go and see this movie? Yes, if you have the stomach for it, but you really have to dig for its profundity in a way which maybe you shouldn't have to in a film which tries this hard to be taken that seriously.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.