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Heck of a Town: A Review of "Gangs of New York"

By TheophileEscargot in Culture
Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 12:28:20 PM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)

Review of Martin Scorsese's latest film, an epic about rival gangs in the Civil War period. Minor spoilers only.

Warning: film is 168 minutes long; and contains violence, sex and Method acting.

In The Beginning
The opening sequence of this movie is one of the most spectacular ever.The camera swoops through and round a vast warren of rough-hewn tunnels and crude tenements, following a boy and his father as an army of gangsters assemble for a battle. You can almost smell the testosterone as the gangsters buckle on homemade armour, sharpen blades, brandish clubs and stoke themselves up for a fight. There is a mediaeval air to the proceedings: we could easily be in a fantasy movie until the tenement doors swing open to reveal the snow-covered Paradise square: eerily silent and utterly deserted.

Two rival armies, each made up of several gangs, assemble in the square. One side is dominated by the "Natives"; American-born gangsters bedecked in red, white and blue: the other side made of the Irish gangs, dominated by the Dead Rabbits. After a quaint formal challenge and response, a brutal battle ensues, leaving the snow stained blood-red and the Irish defeated, their leader "Priest" Vallon killed by the leader of the Natives Bill "the Butcher" Cutting. After the battle, the camera pans back and up, revealing the city of New York, even in 1846 still unmistakable.

New York Stories
The film proper begins in 1863, with the Civil War raging as Vallon's son is released from reform school. Seeking revenge for his father's death, he heads back to the Five Points area of New York under the name "Amsterdam" Vallon. His goal is to kill Bill Cutting, in public, on the anniversary of the initial battle which Cutting celebrates every year. It's a fairly routine motivation, but justifies the plot, as Amsterdam infiltrates Cutting's gang, slowly gaining acceptance to become his right-hand man.

The milieu of the criminal underworld is fascinating, and exploring this strange world is more interesting than the question of whether Amsterdam will get his revenge. We get to see how the underworld operates, get tantalizing glimpses of the complex and diverse scams and the subtle ecology of the system. We're also introduced to a number of minor characters, many of whom were real people: "Hellcat Maggie" with teeth filed to points and metal claws, P.T. Barnum, corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed, and many more.

The unromantic romantic subplot is a kind of love quadrangle involving pickpocket Jenny Everdeane, ex-mistress of Cutting. The only original aspect to it is a mention of the difficulties posed for casual sex by lace-up corsets.

The movie climaxes with the draft riots of 1863, depicted as an apocalyptic ending of the old order. What we see is impressive but rushed: brief snapshots of action linked together by the recital of police telegrams: it's hard to avoid the impression that you're watching edited highlights of another movie altogether. That weakness extends back through much of the middle section of the movie as well. Many characters are introduced, but are often dropped before there's time to get to know them. The sub-plots are often too rushed to be involving. Paradoxically, this film might have felt shorter if it had been allowed to be longer.

Set and Setting
One of the consequences of digital effects is that period films can be more realistic-looking than ever before. One of the stunning successes of this film is that in presents a baroque and exotic world in astonishing detail. While some have criticized it for being gaudy and unrealistic, to me it seemed to be an authentic picture of New York as an almost third-world city, reminiscent of Delhi or Madras in its mixture of poverty and grandeur.

However, the film aspires to be much more than a special-effects movie. It's a movie with things to say, but it's most successful when it says them without words. There's a sardonic portrayal of the age in a single sequence as the camera follows Irish immigrants disembarking from a ship, signing their citizenship papers at one desk, their army recruitment forms at the next, then ascending the gangway in uniform, awkwardly bearing their muskets onto another ship to be sent down to fight in the civil war. The shot finishes with coffins being transferred from the same ship onto the quay.

Race and immigration are the principal themes, with the Irish immigrants being abused and insulted even as they are exploited. Boss Tweed hands out soup for votes, and even Cutting relies on the Irish for his income even as he insults them. "The Irish do for a nickel what the niggers did for a dime and the white American used to do for a quarter" is one characters comment, linking the film to later waves of immigrants. It suggests a cyclical view, with successive waves of immigrants first being exploited and some turning to crime, then achieving political power by whatever means and turning the tables on a new generation of immigrants.

The film also depicts the corruption and near-anarchy of the period well. Rival fire brigades are shown fighting for the right, not so much as to extinguish a blaze, but to loot the house first. Rival police forces are shown fighting too. The gangs of New York include political parties and private companies as well as mere gangsters.

The final linking of the gangs with the draft riots never really comes together, at least in this edit of the film. Rather than exemplifying the struggles of the age, the gangs seem to stand aside from it, bewildered as the army opens fire on protestors. The cosy display of a racial alliance between the gangsters seems irrelevant beside the lynching of African-Americans in revenge at being made to fight against slavery.

Casting the First Stone
Daniel Day-Lewis dominates the movie in a manic performance as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. It's an extremely over-the-top, cartoonishly excessive display that only makes sense if you imagine that Cutting is himself playing a role: acting out the part of a gangster folk-hero to impress his subordinates. This is born out by the powerful scene when wounded and insomniac Cutting talks to Amsterdam who is in bed. For a moment, Cutting's mask of bravado slips as he expresses his age and vulnerability. At the other end of the scale is a scene where he frenetically stabs and chops at the hanging carcass of a pig, yelling "Wound!" and "Kill!" as he illustrated various means of attacking an opponent.

Leonardo DiCaprio does a reasonable job as Amsterdam Vallon. He is inevitably outshone by Day-Lewis, and even Liam Neeson as his father; but that conveys one of the themes of the movie; a violent exhibitionist age being superseded by something better yet blander. He is also handicapped by the trite revenge plot, which demands that he is simultaneously an obsessed maniac and the decent opposite of Bill Cutting.

Cameron Diaz is even more handicapped by a clichéd role as tough pickpocket with a heart of gold. The part is generically "feisty", but with characters like Hellcat Maggie biting off ears in the background, she inevitably seems somewhat insipid by comparison.

Jim Broadbent is the only actor who manages to stand out against Day-Lewis, playing the pompous and corrupt Boss Tweed with a Machiavellian depth. The supporting cast and extras generally perform with relish and enthusiasm, presenting a carnival of excess.

This is not a historical drama, but a fictional story set against a backdrop of real historical events. The major characters are fictional, though Bill "The Butcher" Cutting is heavily based on the real Bill Poole.

There has been a little criticism of the history. For narrative convenience, some events have been compressed into a shorter timescale. In particular, the draft riots montage has been criticized for not showing clearly that the Union army only entered the city to suppress the riots after several days of lawlessness. There have also been complaints that Scorsese underemphasized the role of Irish immigrant gangs in the attacks on African-Americans.

By the standards of Hollywood history, these are relatively minor matters, however. It seems to me that in the short time allotted to the riots themselves, Scorsese made a reasonable job of depicting the events. While the film's heroes are more racially tolerant than was likely, having them take part in lynch mobs would surely have caused even greater offence. The most curious inaccuracy is the depiction of ships firing cannon onto the rioters, which never happened and is militarily implausible. However, the army did use artillery in the riots, though the navy were not involved. I suspect the reason is the now-famous incident when the producers pulled the plug midway through filming the final battles: Scorsese may have been forced to use stock footage to justify the shell impacts.

As is well known by now, there was a great deal of conflict over the movie's length (168 minutes). Director Martin Scorsese wanted a version an hour longer: the producers wanted it as short as possible. In truth, either version would have been better than this uneasy compromise. The minor parts should either have been cut out entirely, or else been developed properly. The released version is uncomfortably reminiscent of the disastrous Dune movie, where a host of characters are introduced only to die almost on their next appearance, leaving the audience baffled. The voice-over narration seems to be largely a clumsy attempt to explain things to bewildered test-screening audiences: more reminiscent of Rick Deckard than Travis Bickle. Its clumsy attempt at giving an uplifting message at the end pretty much contradicts everything we've seen in the movie.

In its present state, the film is far from perfect. A longer director's cut might be an improvement, or a worse failure. However, much of the film's impact comes from its battles and cityscapes: on a small screen too much will be lost to rescue it, however it is reformed and edited.

This film makes demands on its audience: patience and a degree of historical knowledge are required to appreciate it. It also contains realistic violence, which may be disturbing to some. If you're willing to tolerate the flaws, it's nonetheless a powerful, at times astonishing spectacle, which provides great rewards for those prepared to think as they watch.

There is an excellent review of this film available from the Observer newspaper, and the Roger Ebert review is online. The Guardian newspaper has a review, a gangster article and interviews with Martin Scorsese and Daniel Day-Lewis, who learned the basics of butchering and knife-throwing for the role. The IMDB page is informative; but the official site is a disastrous mess of Flash, Javascript and popups, and should be avoided. The original book on which the film was based is a somewhat apocryphal collection of gang folklore: the Amazon page has sample pages.


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Best Martin Scorsese movie?
o Age of Innocence 0%
o Bringing Out the Dead 15%
o Cape Fear 0%
o Gangs of New York 3%
o Goodfellas 31%
o Mean Streets 0%
o Raging Bull 12%
o Taxi Driver 37%

Votes: 32
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Hellcat Maggie
o P.T. Barnum
o William "Boss" Tweed
o draft riots
o Bill Poole
o use artillery
o Observer
o Roger Ebert
o review
o gangster article
o Martin Scorsese
o Daniel Day-Lewis
o IMDB page
o official site
o original book
o Amazon page
o sample pages
o Also by TheophileEscargot

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Heck of a Town: A Review of "Gangs of New York" | 30 comments (11 topical, 19 editorial, 0 hidden)
Scale, Spoilers (4.66 / 3) (#17)
by Scrymarch on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 09:23:33 AM EST

Yep, I said spoilers.

I liked Gangs of New York, but it was a flawed mess.

The battle scene at the start left me cold.  The music with it made it seem like an ultra-violent film clip, which is not bad in itself, but it seemed clumsy.  A few times it seemed like Scorcese was using some newer techniques that didn't quite gel.  It was most obvious at a few moments of "historical epic" scale, managing that big cast of characters.  Some of the most impressive moments in the movie are the big ones that slap you back down - the battleships opening fire on the city, say.  But the movie seemed more comfortable with the small scenes, with uneasy, uncomfortable dialogue between a few characters.  I thought the fight at end worked, even if the riots seemed like a mechanism for letting the Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher fight one-on-one.

Gangs was completely unafraid of cliche, and cliche was everywhere.  The basic plot is taken from a western (or a kung-fu movie); it probably gets away with that.  Others were too rich for my taste, as film techniques got laid on with a trowel.  A lingering shot of the eyelid closing over Bill the Butcher's glass eye?  And the closing sequence of growing skyscrapers and growing grass, while soppy music surged, left a nasty taste.

There's a lot of originality in the movie.  It's game enough to paint the 19th century in something other than sepia.  It shows New York as a surging violent vibrant third world city (great description, Mr Escargot), where sober institutions familiar to the modern rich world are just invented, and chest-deep in nepotism and corruption, but worthy for all that.  ("It's not the ballots that decide an election, it's the counters!").  It puts us in touch with a story of pre-prosperity.  It rips open that perspective on the era, and hopefully another director will make a great movie in the setting now the historical wall has been breached.

Oh, and Daniel Day Lewis is great.  A nutcase who trained for months so he could tap his glass contact lens with a knife without blinking, but great.

I liked the last shot [total spoilers] (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 09:36:00 AM EST

I seem to be alone in this, but I actually liked the last shot of the graves being gradually overgrown with weeds while New York grows up in the background.

I think the key thing here is the obscurity angle. Now the whole point of Amsterdam's quest is to kill Cutting in public.

"When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark. You kill him where the whole court can watch him die."
What actually happens is that the final battle is completely obscured by smoke and dust from the battle: he never achieves that crucial goal.

The theme expressed here is that these individual battles are irrelevant to the larger sweeps of history. Amsterdam's personal quest is ultimately trivial beside the big picture, the civil war, all the history that's being shaped around them. Nobody sees, and ultimately nobody cares.

I would say that the final shot is necessary to emphasize that point, and a great way to show it visually. The untended graves are obscured, overgrown, literally overshadowed by the vast structures that are growing up beside them.

I would say that if there's a problem it's to do with the clunky voiceover and the over-heroic music. It's those things that push things over the top; but IMHO the final sequence is just about perfect.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Nobody sees, and ultimately nobody cares (5.00 / 2) (#26)
by Mr Badger on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 01:49:39 PM EST

I think you've hit on the biggest problem with "Gangs," the final scene does just what you say it does - imply that these characters will vanish without a trace from the historical record - but it also forces us to ask why we should care about the last 3 plus hours of story. Despite the repeated assertions that "Gangs" is about "the hands that built America" (to evoke the U2 theme song), the movie is, in fact, about the hands that America was built in spite of. (Pardon the clumsiness of that statement.)

The gangs and their conflicts were, historically speaking, an interesting side story, but not the central experience of immigrant life in New York. It is appropriate that they vanish, from a thematic standpoint, but I think it is a valid criticism to ask, "Why should we care?" These people lived, made life miserable in the Points, and then died. The Points, and all of the unsung common folk who lived there, outlasted them.

Most of Marty's films focus, unabashedly, on a subculture removed from the mainstream. In fact, it is part of the point of "Goodfellas" that the main character will always be on the outside of normal life looking in. I think part of the failure of "Gangs" is an unclear and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to claim that understanding this criminal subculture will, in some way, give us insight into the creation of modern New York, and that just isn't the case.

One could argue that the film brings to life the unwritten history of the Points - though my argument would be that, like the wealthy family that goes on a slum tour, the film is uninterested in the working class commoner that was the life-blood of the city. Instead, it treats the Points as a human zoo. We get none of the heroes - Parkhurst, Riis, the Bowery Missionaries, the good firemen, policemen, and anti-Tammany politicians who eventually, out of a genuine love for their city and their people, built something in the Points. Instead, we get the familiar image of the poor, the working class, and the immigrant as violent brutes. For example, during the Draft Riots, the mob burned down an African American orphanage. Many children died. This gets mentioned in the film. What isn't mentioned is that it would have been even worse had not an unnamed Irish boy appeared in the orphanage ahead of the mob and organized an escape. He didn't get everybody, but he tried, which is nothing less than a miracle in the face of the chaos and violence that surrounded the scene. Where is this boy and the people like him? The history of the Draft Riots is full of stories of New Yorkers who refused to act like a wolf to their fellow man. They are the true founders of the modern city. Where are they in this film?

A film that focused on the Draft Riots, or the rise and fall of Tammany, or any of the hundred other tangential subplots touched on in the film, may have made the film feel more substantial. As it is, we've got a brilliant, big budget, lavish and long exploration of a curious historical footnote.

If, in fact, there is a director's cut, and if, in fact, it does connect the gangs with draft riot in a more substantial and meaningful way, then I will sing a new tune. As it is now, it is a well done, but somewhat meaningless exercise.

[ Parent ]

Publicity and the biggest gang of all (none / 0) (#27)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 02:09:13 PM EST

I haven't actually seen any of the US publicity and trailers, but from the comments it seems that the marketing doesn't really have much to do with the movie. It sounds as if they're almost trying to market it as a stirring piece of patriotic history.

...the biggest problem with "Gangs," the final scene does just what you say it does - imply that these characters will vanish without a trace from the historical record - but it also forces us to ask why we should care about the last 3 plus hours of story.
Now I don't see that as a problem, because I think the depiction of the gangs is intended to be a microcosm of the larger historical scene. The film makes it pretty clear that the private fire brigades are gangs, the police are gangs, and that ultimately the Union army is another, infinitely more powerful gang. You're supposed to relate the bravado, the posturing, the confrontation rituals, the showmanship of the gangs to that of, ultimately, nations. So, I don't think this is a weakness. The historical impact of the gangs isn't the important thing here, in spite of the film maybe being marketed as though it was.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Narrow focus (5.00 / 2) (#28)
by Mr Badger on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 02:57:29 PM EST

Before we continue - I think your review was great, well written, and well thought out. Please understand that my complaint is with the movie (and it is, of course, only one opinion) and not with you or your views.

I agree that the film does make it clear that gang conflict is the central metaphor for understanding social interaction to the turn of the century. And that's the problem - it isn't. To view the Union Army as a big gang is somewhat absurd. To view Tammany as the sole expression of political power in the late 19th century is not only overly cynical, it is just plain wrong. The famed Municipal vs. City police feud was a brief aberration caused by Mayor Fernando Wood's desire to build a private army - not the model of law enforcement before or after the mid-1800's.

In short, the historical inaccuracy of "Gangs" lies not in the details of costume or plot, but in an easy, cynical, narrowly focused view of history. This movie's view of history is more brutal, but no more complex, than the simple fable pushed in, say, "Birth of a Nation." I think Marty's a genius and I expected more.

I agree completely with your take on the message behind "Gangs." What I disagree with is the film's take on NYC and its past. I think it is a violent caricature of a place and its people, and the historical figures, known and unknown, deserved better.

[ Parent ]

Banal [Massive Spoilers II: The Return] (none / 0) (#30)
by Scrymarch on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 06:01:35 PM EST

The theme expressed here is that these individual battles are irrelevant to the larger sweeps of history.

Yeah, that's a valid thematic reason, but the way it was executed felt both unnecessary and gaggingly obvious.  The U2 song came in on a surge of volume ... and I winced.  And I like U2.  I thought I was watching a bad 1984 telemovie.

A landscape shot can be a very powerful way to end a movie, I remember being stunned by the self-assurance of the end shot in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Some sort of end shot was needed there, but the one they used was a shocker.

I thought the ending half-hour+ was done quite well up until then ... the draft riots; the army being unleashed on the city (Irish immigrants but new to the country themselves?); the artillery fire; the dust.  I like the bubbling corruption and strange optimism of the election sequence before that, as well.

The "irrelevance" theme is not the one I took from the movie (or the shot) either,  I got a "forgotten foundations" vibe instead.  You know, things our forefathers had to go through so we could be here today.  Well, not us personally obviously, but Americans, which will have to be close enough.

I don't know if the voiceover itself was clunky, or just the fact that there had to be one.  Maybe it's like that guideline from The Design of Everyday Things - if you have to use a label, you've done something wrong.

[ Parent ]

I thought it was great. (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by Zara2 on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 12:41:32 PM EST

I thought this was a absolutely wonderful movie, very possibly the best of scorcese's career. I have to agree that there were parts that could have been much longer and I think when the directors cut comes out that we will then see how good this movie really is. Daniel Day put on one of the best performances of a damn phycho that I have ever seen. I could even stomach watching DiCrappio kiss to watch the rest of this movie.

I hated it (none / 1) (#23)
by rayab on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 12:47:36 PM EST

The whole movie is just one big ongoing cliche. But we were in a small town with only one theater and we figured it will turn out better than Just Married or a Maid in Manhattan. I didnt really see a point to the story it was just lame lame lame...

Y popa bila sobaka on yeyo lyubil, ona syela kusok myasa on yeyo ubil, v zemlyu zakopal, i na mogile napisal...
Less of a movie and more of a (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by DuncanChud on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 01:29:18 PM EST

... hodgepodge of scenes, drawn out backstory, and disjoint vignettes. The close of the film clearly hints that it's very important and we should all stop and think about what we've seen, leaving me with a pretentious aftertaste. The acting, while good on the whole suffers from all characters phasing in and out of their assumed accents, like so many sundowning Alzheimer's sufferers, reflecting on their pre-emmigre youthful years that in actuality, never were.

as I said to friends of mine (4.16 / 6) (#25)
by aphrael on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 01:42:43 PM EST

If you're going because you want a compelling, tightly drawn story with no loose ends, this isn't the movie for you. If you're going because you want the best atmospheric depiction of 19th century American life ever seen in a hollywood film, this is the movie for you.

A pretty good asessment (none / 0) (#29)
by Edgy Loner on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 03:50:40 PM EST

That's pretty close to how I reacted to to it. On a somewhat related note, Narc is pretty kickass. A cop movie, but quite good none the less. Very good performances from Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. A very gritty cinema veritas feel, mainly cause they had no money to shot with.

This is not my beautiful house.
This is not my beautiful knife.
[ Parent ]
Heck of a Town: A Review of "Gangs of New York" | 30 comments (11 topical, 19 editorial, 0 hidden)
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