Gangs of New York (2002) is a fundamentally solid film, that truly teeters on the brink of excellence. It offers an incredibly immersive look into a very divulgent time in the history New York, that of the 1840’s. Based around the ‘Five Points’ district, the film loosely follows the anarchy that ensues, and the ever on-going struggle for power. Critical opinion often claimed Gangs of New York didn’t stand up to the hype it generated and sits as one of Scorcese’s more minor films in comparison to Goodfellas, or Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver. Join me as I ponder why Gangs of New York perhaps didn’t pack as mean a punch as Scorcese’s other films, and how it could have possibly been better.
Gangs of New York first shows us an epic battle occurring between the Irish Catholics and immigrants against the American Natives. At the heads of this armies are Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) a true defender of the faith, an inspiration to all. Facing him, Mr.William Cutting, or as he’s often referred ‘Bill The Butcher’. A crude, harsh, and racist man who only seeks supremacy. They go to far as Bill slays his foe, for all to see. His young child runs off as Bill declares his victory, but also the honour of the fight that Vallon put up. The son of priest returns 20 years later to Paradise Square as he is soon taken under the butcher’s wing as he takes quite a liking to him. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Dicaprio) always sought to kill Bill (no pun intended), however a friend rats him out turning Bill against his former protege as he learns of his connection to Priest. Things escalate, leading to a final war between the Dead Rabbits and the Native Conversation Society. However the draft riots begin to occur, and both armies are pretty much instantly dispatched by confederate forces as Bill is hit by shrapnel, Amsterdam finishes him off with a knife. Him, and his lover Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) run off to California in pursuit of a more prosperous land.
A lot of the criticisms were about the story’s course and overall structure, so we’ll begin there. The whole focus of the main plot is on Amsterdam, with the growing tension between him and Bill which leads to the final confrontation. However, with the intervention of the 3rd party draft forces the set piece falls rather flat and feels rather lacking. It was about settling feuds, rivalries, and beliefs but regardless of who killed who it felt as no one really won. Amsterdam strikes Bill down after Bill is wounded by shrapnel as he utters the words ‘Thank God. I’ll die a true American’. For me I felt that wasn’t really cathartic, it’s probably more accurate in it’s depiction of historical nature. After the battle we see Vallon’s and Bill’s graves as they overlook New York as we begin to see it evolve, as the skyline and skyscrapers develop and turn into the New York of today. Their graves gradually deteriorate as Scorcese suggest that the two didn’t really matter?
I’m not quite sure what this means. I guess it meant it signified an end to the wars and the death of both of them is the only way the feud could finally climax between native and Irishman. As for the historical content, the sets design and costume Gangs of New York was very acclaimed for it’s historical preservation. As you’d expect things were misconstrued and bent into a narrative structure as you’d expect. An interesting fact is the Irish primarily feuded with those of black origin as opposed to anyone else, primarily because they would work at a lower rate than that of the Irish, thus stealing their jobs from beneath them.
The performances in Gangs of New York are fantastic. It offers an ensemble cast, headed by Leonardo Dicaprio and Daniel-Day Lewis, with cameos by Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson, Eddie Marsan, among others. For me the character of Bill truly supersedes the film. Bill is a foul, violent intolerant villain, but he’s very logically written. He feels he must die for his country purely because his father did, because he sees some misguided pride in that hence his end remark. His vocabulary and voice are oddly eloquent, but very ribald. He is a violent kingmaker who deals in flesh and blood, both figuratively and literally through his love of the butcher’s cleaver.
‘I took the father. Now I’ll take the son. You tell young Vallon I’m gonna paint Paradise Square with his blood. Two coats. I’ll festoon my bedchamber with his guts.’ – Bill the Butcher
Daniel-Day Lewis is must-see as usual (when is he not?), while the Dicaprio we see in Gangs, isn’t the one we see now. He’s always been a great actor, but in recent years he’s really excelled, become an A-list talent from the likes of Inception, Django Unchained. I don’t suppose I have too much else to say about Gangs of New York. A solid piece of historical entertainment, with some excellent characters and superb performances. The ending for me wasn’t as climatic, it didn’t drive home the vengence of Amsterdam’s father which I felt in many ways was the entire point. Regardless it’s a great film for style, and design, and entertainment if not substance. That’s all for now I suppose. Join me next time! Or I’ll festoon my bedchamber with your guts. >.>
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