Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Gangs of New York is perhaps the most impressive and ambitious disappointment in this year of ambitious cinematic disappointments — a pattern that includes such prestige-picture hopefuls as Road to Perdition, Changing Lanes, The Four Feathers, Signs, Solaris, and Adaptation.
Set in the 1860s against a backdrop of civil war, Irish immigration, and anti-draft backlash, Gangs of New York is in a way the culmination of Scorsese’s careerlong fascination with New York and its history, as well as of his three-decade-long desire to make a film from Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book of the same title.
That book, with its breathless vignettes of the 19th-century lower Manhattan underworld, has no central plot or unifying storyline. Similarly, the most striking moments in Scorsese’s film come as glimpses into that time and place. When we see hordes of immigrants milling about in the unguessed catacombs beneath the Old Brewery of the Five Points neighborhood, or rival fire brigades brawling in the streets rather than fighting the fire, it’s easy to feel that here, surely, is a dark and strange world that would be interesting to explore, a world in which memorable stories must have taken place.
Alas, this film isn’t one of them. A team of screenwriters including Steven Zaillian (Hannibal) has crafted a conventional, if relentlessly dark, tale of murder and revenge that in some ways recalls Road to Perdition: Both films are period-piece gangland tales that begin with the protagonist’s kin being murdered, leading the protagonist to declare war against an underworld kingpin with whom he has, or comes to have, a quasi-filial relationship. In addition to this murder-and-revenge plot, Gangs offers a romantic-triangle subplot, giving star Leonardo DiCaprio a chance to lighten the mood by flirting with Cameron Diaz.
Road to Perdition was about a civil revolt within one Irish Catholic mob; the conflict in Gangs is a war of enemies divided by culture and religion. On one side is the established Protestant population of New York, of English and Welsh and Dutch stock; on the other, waves of Irish Catholic immigrants driven to the New World by the potato famine (cf. Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America).
The dominant gang, the Protestant "Nativists," is led by flamboyant warlord Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis in a typically dazzling though showier-than-usual performance), who in a ferocious opening battle scene kills the leader of the Catholic "Dead Rabbits" gang, "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson). Vallon is survived by his young son, Amsterdam, who soon grows into a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) hungry for revenge. Diaz, meanwhile, plays Jennie Everdeane, a fetching pickpocket who dallies variously with Bill and Amsterdam, among others.
Though he killed the elder Vallon, Bill honors the memory of his fallen enemy: "We lived by the same principles; it was only faith that divided us." He recalls with admiration a moment when his Catholic rival could have killed him, but chose instead, when he saw that Bill was unable to meet his gaze, to let him live in shame. Bill explains how this drove him to atone for his dishonor by cutting out his own eye and sending it to Vallon in tribute ("I would have cut them both out if I could have fought him blind"). Only then could he rise up, his honor restored, and destroy Vallon.
It would perhaps be possible to find dramatic interest in exploring this demented, quasi-chivalric code of honor, in watching characters struggle to reconcile the demands of their ethos with the demands of practicality and self-interest, perhaps even with an occasional flicker of conscience or morality.
Yet in fact from beginning to end these characters remain unshakeably confident of the lives they’ve chosen, implicitly certain that God favors them and hates their enemies, never for a moment reflecting on the morality of their own acts of murder, whoring, fornication, theft, and so on.
Above all, no one ever entertains any doubts about the rightness and wisdom of seeking above all else to kill one’s enemies (at least not until the last half-hour, when someone briefly pleads with one of the principals to back down before he gets killed). Warlords on both sides devoutly invoke "the Christian God" or "the true Lord" to help them destroy their enemies; the Catholics call also on the Blessed Virgin and St. Michael. Everyone takes for granted that killing the other side is an act of service to God. That the Christian God might disapprove of any of this seems never to have entered into anyone’s mind or been suggested to them.
In one key sequence, the film intercuts three sets of prayers: Amsterdam praying for vengeance against Bill the Butcher; Bill praying for victory over Amsterdam; and a patrician member of the upper class (who stand accused in the film of buying their sons’ ways out of the draft and sending the poor to die in their places) praying for continued divine mercy. God and faith, it seems, are little more than hypocritical, ironic slogans lending authority to whatever course people have already decided on.
The dearth of true religious sense is absolute: Even the local archbishop (we read in a newspaper headline) believes in fighting fire with fire, threatening "retribution" for any attacks on the Irish. Amsterdam sums up the role of religion in the film when he says, "Our faith is the weapon most feared by our enemies."
Are there people who use religion this way? Undoubtedly. Is it plausible that among such a large and diverse 19th-century population this is the only sort of religious or moral feeling we should ever meet — that not one character should ever manifest any sense of moral self-awareness or conflict? I don’t think so. Does religion of this sort make for an interesting theme in a story? Unequivocally not. It’s as one-dimensional and tedious as can be imagined.
Even Road to Perdition, a film I didn’t particularly like, was more nuanced than this, with Paul Newman’s memorable exchange with Tom Hanks: "There’s only murderers in this room! And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven." In Gangs, the only time anyone speaks of damnation is when one character, a corrupt cop, momentarily appeals to his duty to uphold the law — a gambit that prompts Bill the Butcher to reply incredulously, "You may have misgivings, but don’t go believing that. That way lies damnation." The cop’s brief flirtation with principle ended, he responds hastily, "I’m in no danger of damnation." Neither, in this sense, is anyone else in the film.
The one-note portrayal of religion is symptomatic of the film’s problems. Gangs is about violence, honor, class, sex, revenge, racism, poverty, patriotism, and politics, yet in all of this it doesn’t seem to have anything particularly insightful to say about human nature, criminal behavior, New York, America, or much of anything else.
For all the energy devoted to meticulously recreating the world of Five Points, Gangs is ultimately a plot-driven and character-driven story. Yet apart from Bill the Butcher, with his colorful ideosyncracies and Day-Lewis’s audacious performance, the characters never emerge from the woodwork, never become more interesting than the sets and costumes they inhabit, and their conflicts never take on the epic grandeur they’re clearly meant to.
This is not to fault DiCaprio, who carries the role of Amsterdam with the necessary gravitas and inner turmoil. Day-Lewis, though, is a magician who made The Last of the Mohicans seem compelling — at least while one was watching it — mostly with the sheer intensity on his face as he ran bare-chested through the forest. Watching him, one felt that, wherever he was headed, it was surely very important. Here he’s got a scene in which he utters the following lines of dialogue in this order: "He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering. I never had a son. Civilization is crumbling. God bless you." He makes it seem cogent, even profound.
Yet when the spell is over, it becomes clear that the plot-driven events in the movie’s foreground are trite and uninvolving compared to the backdrop against which they occur. It doesn’t work as drama, and it doesn’t work as anything else either.
The film wants to say something important about its subject matter ("America was born in the streets," proclaims the promotional material), yet it takes too many important liberties to be very interesting as historiography. Scorsese tries to elevate his gangland warfare into a battle over American principles and ideals, but in doing so turns his Irish gangsters into "heroes" who may commit acts of murder and debauchery, but are certainly not racists like the Nativists. (The film depicts the Irish befriending a token black character while the Nativists riot against having to fight to free slaves. Historically, I understand, the Irish were as active in the draft riots as any group in New York.)
Watching this film, I’m reminded of the way Stanley Kubrick labored over A.I. Artificial Intelligence for decades, to his credit finally realizing that despite his interest in the material he hadn’t succeeded in shaping it into a finished film. The film was ultimately made by Steven Spielberg, whom some feel may not have succeeded where Kubrick failed. I’m not sure myself that Spielberg’s film is clear about what it wants to say, but it poses intriguing philosophical questions and moral situations worth thinking about (cf. "Is it a Game?").
Scorsese, for better or worse, persisted and ultimately made his own film. In the end, for whatever reason — whether due to cuts imposed by Miramax or for some other reason — I’m not convinced that there’s anything more at the center of the finished picture than the director’s own interest in the subject matter. Shakespearean in aspiration, operatic in scope, spectacularly mounted, Gangs of New York is a remarkable cinematic effort. If only it were about something.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.