Catching Up with the Classics: GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)

Martin Scorsese reckons with power and legacy in this deliberately gruesome, self-destructive historical epic

Film 59 of 115: GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)

My favorite thing about Martin Scorsese’s historical epics is how “present” they are. It isn’t that they feel like modern stories (though they are) or that they have a timeless quality (which they do). Films like The Irishman, The Aviator, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun are filled with lavish production design, with stellar casts in insanely-accurate costumes. They’re joys to watch — and often brutal ones. But for as long as we spend time in these elaborately-constructed worlds, Scorsese just as quickly casts these worlds away. There’s an undercurrent, be it human progress or the inevitable path to the grave, that never ceases to remind us that nothing good or bad can stay here for long. These epics, as such, feel like intricate mandalas that are cast aside into the sands of history as they reach their climax.

Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s mandala of a turning point in New York history, as warring factions of American “Natives” and both established and fresh-off-the-boat Irish immigrants fight for control of the city. Towering above them all is Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), an American who revels in the control he has over the people beneath him by way of immense bloodshed, infectious racism, and rampant vice. But his control is tenuous, as more boatloads arrive of people searching for opportunity in America are welcomed with open arms by Tammany Hall’s William Tweed (Jim Broadbent). And above them all, the looming death machine of the Civil War siphons off both established and immigrant American alike.

Unknown to Bill, his greatest threat lies in plain sight. Ages ago, Bill struck down Priest Vallon, leader of the Irish gang The Dead Rabbits; now, Vallon’s grown son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) has returned to New York seeking vengeance. Through the help of his father’s old acquaintances, Amsterdam works his way into Bill’s inner circle, inching closer to his dream of vengeance. But as allegiances are made and broken, hopes dashed and restored, Amsterdam’s Shakespearean saga becomes one thread among many as the future of New York City comes into bloody focus.

As with Scorsese’s other period efforts, the attention to detail in Gangs of New York allows for nothing short of a spectacle. Lit with withering candles and grimy gas lamps, production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus capture 1860s New York City as if it were truly a viral microcosm of the chaotic world outside its borders, bursting at the seams with all sorts of life, self-interest, opportunity, and morality, each aspect of which causes feverish sparks of mayhem like the most volatile atoms. It’s a city you can’t wait to leave, one that feels like a prison for all inside it, which feeds into our characters’ diverse motivations for razing this world and remaking it in their own image.

And boasting a script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, Gangs of New York affords us the time to invest in each of our characters’ placement on this spectrum of ideals and self-interest. The natural standout of our cast is Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher, a populist in the most vile and provocative of ways. He’s a man who revels in the filth of the city, turning others’ misfortune into his own advantage, one who sees others’ lack of progress as evidence of his own upward trajectory. He’s a monster wholly terrified by the idea of social progress and equality, as such things would cause his power to slip through his fingers like blood from a stone. This evil within him concentrates into a stunning Scorsese symbol — an American Eagle as the iris of a false eye, a blinding badge of misplaced honor and glory.

While Gangs of New York doesn’t intend to be Bill’s picture, Day-Lewis’ performance wholly overshadows the rest of the players, and each character can’t help but feel like a reflection of the Butcher than the other way round. DiCaprio’s Amsterdam possesses the same capacity for violence but with a patience and empathy towards lifting up his fellow sufferers that Bill would see as comical. Brendan Gleeson’s McGinn shares the same opportunistic reverence for chaos, but sees how it could be used for a greater good. He very nearly gets the chance to change things — if it weren’t for Bill’s skill at throwing carving knives. On this same lonely end of good intentions is Broadbent’s Boss Tweed, who plays the game as pragmatically and indifferently as he can, understanding that if things become marginally less terrible for those beneath him, he can reap future rewards. It totally jives that he rolls with someone like P.T. Barnum, as Tweed creates a rollicking circus out of New York politics.

Then there’s those without power, like Cameron Diaz’s Jenny. Coming into Gangs of New York, I’d heard that she was one of the film’s weaker qualities, or that she’d been notably miscast. Coming out of the film, it feels like this is another example of Diaz being given the short end of the stick. While an arc like Jenny’s takes a regrettable backseat to the other characters’ penchants for violent revenge, Diaz still plays Jenny with a distant, fierce practicality akin to The Counselor’s Malkina, albeit with much more of a soul. Much like other women of the time, she’s forced into a world where she must do what she can to survive, though she refuses to let circumstances interfere with her own moral compass. What unifies these characters, and makes Gangs of New York such a compelling watch, is this fight for survival, to come out of all of this bloodshed with their values intact.

It’s a brutal fight for ideals throughout Gangs of New York, set amidst one of the most gruesome wars in history. It was fascinating seeing how Gangs of New York aligned its politics, as Scorsese and company don’t downplay how unapologetically racist this period of history was, even pulling from historical woodcuts as a stand-in for some of the film’s more repugnant acts of terror. Dealing with the cultural misgivings of the past is a hurdle that any filmmaker must deal with; to do otherwise risks whitewashing history and enabling those attitudes to further on unchecked. One of the things I appreciated about Gangs of New York is how these socially backward views played into the film at large. Many of the characters in turn downplay the likelihood that they’ll be affected by the War at all, that the battle over Slavery is a larger distraction amidst this smaller-scale battle for New York territory. It’s a belief that everyone, no matter their affiliation, ends up viscerally reckoning with in a fiery blaze at the film’s close, and brings an incendiary coda to Gangs of New York’s themes of the ever-turbulent winds of History.

Throughout Gangs of New York, the only thing that feels constant about power is how fleeting it is. Alliances change based on how much personal or financial sway one possesses at any given moment. Even the most towering of figures like Bill the Butcher can have their influence cut away in the counting of a ballot box, and a long fought-after territory can be reduced to rubble with the blast of a cannon. In either situation, those watching events play out like carrion pick through the rubble of what remains, hoping to garner some advantage out of the madness. As a result, the stakes of Gangs of New York feel petty and insignificant by the film’s close — that the good or evil men do end up as footnotes in the ledgers of history, and their larger-than-life battles are farcical in light of the fact that whoever wins will be cut down by the next challenger.

At the same time, though, Gangs of New York’s power comes from how much Scorsese and company manage to make you give a damn about these squabbles. Just because these events end up as footnotes in history doesn’t reduce how much those involved cared about their outcome. As such, Scorsese treats the forgotten past with the visceral vitality it deserves, feverishly replicating this gritty bloody world in spite of the fact that it gets flushed away in a heartbeat. Like the historical epics that succeed it, Gangs of New York vivifies the past in all of its brutal, misguided glory in the hopes we might glean some better understanding of our forebears’ foibles. It’s a film that suggests that violent, vain power grabs may define our history, but shows that they can fall away just as easily as our attempts to better the lives of those around us. That as much as we like to think that history bears no consequence to us, it very well does, and a cannon shot can prove that in a heartbeat.

Regardless of the paths we choose, whether it’s the self-interested one of Bill the Butcher, the pragmatic and populist ones of Boss Tweed and McGinn, or the simple, honor-bound one of Amsterdam, each one carries its own lasting effect throughout history, one that outlives however long people remember your name. That even though the world we create may be a mandala swept aside in time, that doesn’t invalidate the fact that it once existed, and caused as much harm and beauty as we allowed it. It’s a potent well that Scorsese has often returned to, and one well worth returning to as anyone approaches the point where lives end and legacies begin.

Gangs of New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and is currently available to stream on HBONow/Go.

Previous post SPINEMA Issue 36: Mondo Shows Their TEEN SPIRIT
Next post Two Cents Film Club Loves the Craft of DAGON (and Stuart Gordon)