One expects a lot from a Martin Scorsese film — and with his latest effort he gives you a lot, but it’s not quite what you’d expect. Gangs of New York is a panoramic historical drama, an epic wherein large crowds of people are moved about while larger-than-life characters dominate the foreground. Scorsese is enough of a film obsessive to know the rules of the game for any given genre, and for the most part he adheres here to the epical tradition with its stentorian villain, resourceful hero, obligatory romantic subplot and the violent clashes of ferocious enemies. Which is to say that on one level the movie is, though hugely entertaining, surprisingly conventional.
Part of this has to do with the fact it’s difficult to put a personal touch on an epic, particularly if one’s personal touch finds its finest expression in the intimate exploration of emotional and physical violence. Scorsese’s best films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino) have a loose anecdotal structure which emphasizes the unpredictability of their narratives and which also serves to continually refresh the overall feeling of anxious exhilaration and/or dread. This is Scorsese’s singular contribution to cinema and, when people talk about some fractiously violent indie film being in a post-Pulp Fiction-Tarantino mode, they’re usually referring to something that can be traced back to Scorsese. (Tarantino’s originality lies more in his writing than his directing.) One has also gotten the feeling from Scorsese’s best work that scene by scene the director has been seeking visuals that aren’t clichéd, albeit those that would not obscure character or plot. Almost any five minutes picked at random from the films mentioned above will have this identifying restlessness — or at the very least convey the impression of having been directed by somebody with an eager eye for the revealing detail.
But Gangs, in its immensity, is a departure for Scorsese, even more so than The Age of Innocence or Kundun, and its pleasures are not those of watching a familiar stylist working out new variations. (Considering Scorsese’s mediocre box-office record, this may actually bode well for it commercially.) The film, with its prologue in 1846 and its main body of action in 1863, is set in New York City’s Five Points, a slum so desolate that even Charles Dickens, something of a connoisseur when it came to poverty, was appalled by its squalor. The story is a pastiche of history and fiction, generally true if not entirely factual. It begins with an impressive set piece, a battle between two gangs, one of Irish immigrants, the other of native-born Americans, a large-scaled version of the sort of territorial struggles that have informed other Scorsese movies. It then flashes forward to a tale of revenge thwarted and ends with the chaos of the draft riots of 1863.
The head of the nativist gang, Bill the Butcher, is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and any qualms one has about the impersonal tone of the movie seem moot whenever he’s on screen. It’s an amazing performance, incredibly broad and even at times cartoonish, but its audacity is just right for this charismatic madman.
DiCaprio as Amsterdam, the young man who approaches Bill seeking revenge but then falls under his spell, is good — solid — even though he has to act in Day-Lewis’ imposing shadow. It’s easy to forget that the pre-Titanic DiCaprio was taken rather seriously and was seen as something of a prodigy who excelled in difficult roles. But after the boat movie he became a huge celebrity and as a result (inevitably, if unfairly) he was viewed as someone upon whom fortune had smiled too broadly and who no longer needed championing, but rather, deflating. He deserves more serious consideration. Also notable is Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed, the prototype of American political corruption, while Cameron Diaz is her usual charming self in the superfluous role of DiCaprio’s love interest.
Gangs of New York is too unwieldy to be entirely successful. And its dark vision, that we’re a country of tribes and classes who have always been at each others’ throats, makes the film’s final tableau, a vision of modern-day New York complete with the now-hallowed twin towers rising out of the ashes of the chaotic past, seem pretty empty. But if this isn’t a great Scorsese movie, it’s definitely a classic Daniel Day-Lewis one, and that makes it one of the best of the year.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.