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The Blog:
Tuesday, December 24, 2002
 

Gangs of New York



I feel woefully undereducated to discuss Gangs of New York, and mainly for two reasons. First, I've only seen the film once, and most movies of this sort -- big, sprawling epics with insane detail and dense characterization -- especially Scorsese movies (which always gain on repeated viewings), need to be seen multiple times in order to properly analyze them. Secondly, I'm not an expert on 19th century New York, so I don't really know how well Scorsese portrays a certain political period that defines his other films: namely, a world where lawless thugs rule the streets with their own codes of honor, and civil wars between men are worse than wars between nations -- if such wars can be distinguished.

That said, I'll try to sort out some things that I've been chewing on. First of all, there's one fantastic, amazing, fabulous, masterful shot that blew me away, and it comes halfway through the film. Scorsese tracks his camera down a plank showing Irish immigrants getting off a boat in New York; he follows them to a table where they sign two documents: first, to officially make themselves citizens, and second, to sign themselves up for the draft; then he pans over to a group of recently commissioned immigrant soldiers strapping on their Union uniforms, and then walking right back up a different plank onto a different boat to go to Tennessee and fight for "their country;" and from that boat, he follows several coffins carrying dead soldiers once again arriving in New York, this time to be stacked alongside one another in pine boxes. What a brilliant set-up and follow-through. Like the nightclub shot in Goodfellas, this sequence single-handedly asserts the film's thesis about immigrants who were forced to die for a government that didn't want them while they were trying to escape death in their own nation.

Other things that impressed me: Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Bill the Butcher is everything it's been hyped to be -- intense, fearsome, and complex. I usually hate Cameron Diaz: she was the worst thing about two films I liked, Vanilla Sky and Being John Malkovich, and in other things she's been either distracting or forgettable. But she's finally found a director who knew how to throw her into a role and make her really act. Her chemistry with DiCaprio (who is also quite good -- understated but with great star presence) is undeniable, and she's given a character with a lot of baggage; a self-made woman from the streets with brains, secrets, and ambition. It's hard not to like her.

The sets by Dante Ferretti are so lavish that they fail to hide the fact that they were built on an Italian studio backlot, and all of the exterior scenes (of which there are about three before the final action climax) too clearly show a bunch of people running around an Italian studio backlot. So much detail in the costumes, architecture, and props, but it's so operatic that it's too much a "movie." It's hard to get immersed in something so forced. So historical. The film's narrative isn't allowed to breathe through the rusty coins and bloody fabrics of Scorsese's production.

Scorsese's ultimate American story takes the Western cliche of a son avenging his father's death at the hands of the bad guy running the town. DiCaprio already did this story in Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, a more entertaining (if equally violent and less intelligent) riff on the premise. The political battles of this film are so overwhelming that we really couldn't care less about some Irish kid getting revenge for his father's murder. Who cares? Why are we to side with a guy who won't be happy until he gets an eye for an eye (literally)? And when, halfway through, Day-Lewis finds out DiCaprio's motivation, he captures him and decides not to kill him (why? because then the movie would be over) -- but he says "I will torture you and scar you and leave you a freak for everyone to stare at for the rest of your life! Bwahahahaha!!!" And what does he do? Nothing. DiCaprio comes out looking even more handsome than before. There's a faint hint of a red mark on his cheek, but it goes away in a few scenes.

That this central drama so badly fails to engross us is doubly depressing given the film's other terrific merits. We learn quite a bit about the draft, race relations in New York under Lincoln's administration, and immigrant policies. While the movie pretends that Manhattan was overrun with Chinese immigrants in the 1860s (a fallacy), and claims that gunships in the harbor cannon-bombed the city (another fallacy) during the draft riots in cold weather (yet another fallacy -- they actually took place in July, the hottest month of the year, which indicates Spike Lee knew what he was doing when he made a film about a New York summer that results in riots and racial violence), it still presents a view of America that is sadly prophetic. We're a nation bound by greed, intolerance, and ultimately, a self-defeating philosophy that we'd rather die for our principles in bloody battle rather than negotiate and compromise. Scorsese really had something here -- a premise, a setting, actors, and his brilliant directorial eye, but somewhere along the way the production suffocated itself with too many poorly written expository scenes that further some subplots that don't fluidly relate to the whole. Again, I need to see the movie a couple more times, but my impression after one viewing is that it's part great, part failure, but a film worth seeing. 7/10