Building America on blood and violenceMartin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” has the scope, bombast and ambition to attempt nothing less than the rewriting of American history.
No powdered wigs here, no wise patriarchs dispensing wisdom, no wagon trains conquering the West.
“America,” as the film’s tag-line goes, “was born in the streets.” And what streets they are. As envisioned by Mr. Scorcese, New York in the mid-19th century churns and boils with cruelty, discontent and misery. “Everybody owes, everybody pays,” exclaims Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis).
The film opens in the teeming underground catacombs of 1846 New York, as the Irish immigrant gang The Dead Rabbits are preparing for battle.
They are conquered and dispersed by the savage Bill and his hordes of nativists. In the fray, he kills the leader of the Rabbits, who happens to be the father of Amsterdam (Leondardo DiCaprio), and a feud is born.
Amsterdam flees, returning to New York 16 years later, a young man hell-bent on revenge. But at the same time, he’s seduced by Bill. He can’t simply kill his father’s killer. Bill, he explains, is a king, and you can’t kill a king from the shadows. Amsterdam needs to get close, and in the process of getting close, he develops a certain loyalty, even an admiration, for the madman.
Even though conflict is seemingly inevitable, Mr. Scorsese takes any path other than the obvious. After all, he’s making history, and the lives of these characters are a part of the historical fabric of the time.
In the 1860s, the Civil War is raging. Immigrants and the poor make up the bulk of the North’s forces. But for most of the people in the Five Points of New York, their loyalty is still with their kin and their neighborhoods more than it is the Union.
As the war between Bill and Amsterdam builds, so does local unrest and hatred, directed toward the draft. For much of the film, government authority is subordinate to the warring tribes. “Gangs of New York” posits that America was built at this time when the government put down these tribes ― brutally, forcefully ― putting all its citizens, new and old, under state control.
At one point, Bill says upon meeting Mr. DiCaprio’s character for the first time, “Amsterdam? I’m New York.” It’s not particularly subtle and it’s not meant to be. “Gangs” is spectacle. It’s overpowering visuals, a barrage of sounds and, lifting the film above the riff-raff and dreck of most of the movies today, a heavy dose of big ideas.
The organized crime and gangster activities of today aren’t anomalies to be explained away; according to Mr. Scorsese, they’re the norm, and it’s our thin veneer of civility and order that needs explaining.
by Mark Russell