Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent
Parental Notes: Suitable for mature teens only due to violent content and mature themes.
Martin Scorsese is not known for crafting lighthearted, escapist entertainment, and “Gangs of New York” is no exception. Indeed, while the film is involving and well-crafted, it is difficult to say whether or not it is enjoyable. The intense violence and the dark viewpoint it presents make it difficult to watch at times, but the complex and sympathetic characters make it difficult to look away.
At nearly three hours in length, “Gangs of New York” feels like an epic, and although it focuses on a small group of people and in a small section of Civil War-era New York, it is a story that resonates on a wider scale. The film follows young Amsterdam Vallon from his boyhood, when he watches as his father is killed in a huge gang battle, to adulthood, when he tries to juggle survival with avenging his father’s death. Amsterdam returns to New York after growing up in an orphanage to find that Bill The Butcher, the man who killed his father, has become immensely powerful. The Butcher and his men are influential and feared, both by other gangs and by the politicians of New York. Amsterdam winds up being taken under Bill’s wing, and finds himself torn between vengeance and an unwilling respect for the man.
Although very little of the film’s time is taken up with violence, the scenes involving gang warfare and the draft riots of the early 1860s are harrowing. Bloodstained snow, gruesome sound and visual effects, and the grisly deaths of several sympathetic characters are heavily featured, and during the draft riots, the mob escalates from destroying property to racial lynchings. While the events are integral to the story and the film’s ultimate message highlights the futility of violence, the way the camera involves the viewer in the carnage borders on glorification.
Daniel Day-Lewis steals every scene as the Butcher, swaggering through the city with his fancy vests and his knives on his belt. The raw intensity of the character sears the audience, and while diCaprio is a fine actor in a role that brings out his talents (unlike the pretty-boy roles he’s been taking since Titanic), he is no match for Day-Lewis. It is a pleasure, however, to see Di Caprio in a role that allows him to act rather than just be a good-looking presence on screen. Amsterdam is a character in desperate conflict with himself, and DiCaprio handles him well.
The more we learn about the characters of “Gangs of New York,” the more clear the cyclical nature of violence becomes. In many ways, Amsterdam’s relationship with the Butcher mirrors the Butcher’s relationship with Amsterdam’s father. Their final battle, obscured by the smoke from the riots and thrown into chaos by the military’s attempts to put down the mob, is a chaotic and almost anticlimactic mess, as though Scorsese was trying to underscore the futility of honorable combat in the face of modern unrest. Many of the characters in the film seem to believe that civilization is teetering on the brink of destruction, a familiar feeling in our post-September 11th world.
It’s easy to see why the release of “Gangs of New York” was delayed repeatedly. It is a difficult film to watch, and not family fare in even the broadest sense of the word. Those interested in a film that will make for good discussion fodder and keep them interested will probably enjoy it, but those in search of a relaxing or purely entertaining evening at the movies would be better served elsewhere.