Gangs of New York
Reviewed in January 2003
Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, Gary Lewis, Cara Seymour. Screenplay: Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan ("inspired by" the book The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury).

Photo © 2002 Miramax Films
The best way into the problem of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—and the film is, indisputably, a problem—is to take a cue from Scorsese’s last movie. No, I don’t mean 1999’s Bringing out the Dead, a film I’ve always liked, and whose patronizing reputation as a “small” or “minor” movie may look a little more favorable next to the sprawling, ungainly size of this one. The movie I have in mind is Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, a documentary Scorsese conceived and compiled while in Rome to film Gangs of New York, and which he released to American theaters last year. Viaggio is a personal love letter to a century of Italian cinema, a retrospective documentary gushed into being by one of the world’s most genuine lovers of the movies. Some of the sequences Scorsese excerpts from his favorite films are permitted to run as long as 20 minutes, which is why they can’t really be called “clips.” The expanses of room and time afforded to these precious moments have something to do with why Viaggio as a whole runs almost exactly six hours. However majestic the contents, it’s a lot for one mind (or one fanny) to take, but Scorsese seems convinced he’d be short-shrifting us by furnishing anything less.

Gangs of New York, a feature Scorsese has been developing and gradually financing since 1977, is both ennobled, if we’re being generous, and injured, if we’re being honest, by exactly the same impulses. It is heartwarming that any director in the increasingly corporatized American filmmaking community would harbor so sentimental a dream as to shoot in Fellini’s old Cinecittà studios. Even more remarkable is that Bob and Harvey Weinstein, two moguls who prove that some gangs still survive in New York, would fork over $100 million of Miramax money so that Scorsese could follow his druthers. The Weinsteins, of course, in their Tammany Hallish pragmatism, wouldn’t yield these funds if they weren’t expecting to make them back. Two weeks of box office indications have made this an unlikely prospect, but I’m frankly not too concerned whether Gangs will earn back Miramax’s fortune. I’m more preoccupied with wondering why Gangs, for all the grandness of its conception and scrupulous detail of its design, ultimately didn’t seem particularly deserving of my family’s fifteen bucks.

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia gives me some hunches. Principally, Scorsese seems to have lost the ability, or maybe the inclination, to fit his passions into a tidily sized frame, or to make harsh selective choices among the catalogue of what most inspires him; ironically, it may have helped Bringing out the Dead that its director wasn’t overly invested in it. By contrast, the first hour and a half of Gangs’ 164 minutes, a reasonable amount of time to constitute its own feature, is consumed by almost pure exposition, despite the fact that most of the characters are either familiar from historical record or instantly recognizable from the archetypal portfolio of epic melodrama: the martyred father, the avening son, the charismatic villain, the duplicitous friend, the beautiful and penitent traitress. What further distends the movie are the compulsiveness of its allusions (everything from Stroheim’s Greed to Coppola’s Godfather gets referenced), the virtuosic abandon of its set-pieces (the opening clash, a disrupted assassination, a few indulgent monologues), the visual thrall to those cavernous Fellini sets, and the carnivalesque devotion to filling those environments with the people, costumes, and grotesqueries Fellini might have put there. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, art director Dante Ferretti—both Scorsese vets from The Age of Innocence—and costume designer Sandy Powell are enviable recruits, but the blank-check extravagance of their work quickly takes on a life of its own. Just as Casino plunged us for 45 minutes into the esoterica of gambling-house management, Gangs of New York vertiginously conjures the textures and spectacles of this mythic vision of the city, with equally paltry dramatic payoffs.

But how mythic is the vision meant to be? One decision Gangs of New York can never quite make is whether its primary disposition is toward punctilious social history or operatic amplifications of reality. In theory, there is nothing wrong with being both—in fact, the schizoid identity of this particular city, which has always been both a real place and a collective fantasy, has been the central theme of some of Scorsese’s best work. But for this thesis to work, it needs to be balanced. Edith Wharton, for once, who wrote her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence about the New York of the 1870s, generated exquisite tension between the hypocritical machinations she hated among the urban upper-crust and the luscious material and cultural riches they dreamed for themselves, which she couldn’t help being attracted to. Scorsese clearly can’t resist the sensory variety of 1862 Manhattan; every idiom electrifies him, from the opulent to the destitute. But what should be a countervailing force in the movie, a tribal, exclusionary, and quickly senescing street-code of honor, also seems to excite his unwitting enthusiasm. It’s as though Scorsese can’t put his camera on anything without being turned on by it, which is why even those passages in Gangs which aspire to social realism get slickened and sexed until they, too, become implausibly voluptuous, and the scale of each sequence becomes uniformly lusty and grandiose. Eventually, what should be a two-hander parable between a regional kingpin and a next-generation nemesis, perfumed with the wider contexts of historical fact, styles itself instead as an epochal war for the future of the country, ornamented with all the customary religious similes, and hubristically casting as subplots the structuring narratives—vote-rigging, war and zoning initiatives, economic and racial caste reinforcement—that by all rights should be running the show.

A pop opera of New York history is not necessarily less desirable than a more disciplined reconstruction of historical causes and effects. Martin Scorsese has never claimed to be David McCullough, or even John Sayles, and the awkwardness of his feints in this direction—crammed into voice-over narration, or ventriloquized by extras from central casting who scream things like “Who has 300 dollars?”—would be gladly tolerated if the melodrama encompassing them packed any real heat. But the dramatic and romantic triangles that propel Gangs of New York are two-thirds miscast and every bit misconceived. Daniel Day-Lewis does his best to hold this disparate movie together, cobbling a performance as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting that crystallizes and coheres Scorsese’s dual impulses toward Romantic fantasy and deep psychology. Bill himself has long ago confused a whitewashed protestant version of American identity with the real truth, and he shores up his delusions by lethally daring anyone to doubt them. A butcher by trade who feeds his legend by butchering people, a proponent of pure lineages who adopts and seduces an orphan girl, Bill is hyperbolic and self-contradicting, just like the movie. Whether Day-Lewis deliberately matched his performance to the contours of Scorsese’s vision, or the director shaped his film to capitalize on its richest performance, the characterization of Bill is practically the movie’s raison d’être. It is Day-Lewis’ unique gift to play this unlikely figure not necessarily as a believable person, but as a person it is enticing to believe in—a character like Hawthorne’s Hester or Suzan Lori-Parks’ Foundling Father who helpfully illustrates some key paradoxes in the American identity even if he never actually lived. In a film full of details, the best ones all attach to Bill: the clowny swagger of his plaid pants, his mellifluously toady accent, the motif whereby he is always eating but always dines alone.

Meanwhile, though, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz’s Jenny Everdeane barely seem alive, even by the meekest standards of suspended disbelief. DiCaprio plays his avenging-angel character as though he really is an angel—fully complicit in the screenplay’s tendency of making this ethically unreadable character into some kind of hardscrabble Byronic superstud. Gangs picks up where In the Bedroom, Unfaithful, and the noxious Road to Perdition left off by making personal vengeance into some kind of implacable American credo—and by the last act of the movie, when the Gangs script does finally imply that Bill’s and Amsterdam’s feud may not amount, as they say, to a hill of beans in this crazy world, the morose gravity of DiCaprio’s playing leaves little room to relish the irony. And Diaz, an actress who has consistently surpassed expectations, is not up to a role that isn’t much worth playing. Gangs sets her up as Casino did Sharon Stone: a striking criminal beauty whose wafting into the plot becomes the seismic source of conflict between two men who have plenty of other reasons to hate each other. Cosmetically symbolic of treacheries that the rest of the movie spells out more literally, Diaz’s character is structurally crucial and yet weirdly redundant. It doesn’t even need the backstory it provides her, since her petty thieving becomes irrelevant to the plot virtually the instant we learn about it. (One possible exception: Diaz, that minx, does seem to have slunk into the makeup trailer when no one was looking and swiped the only bottles of conditioning shampoo.)

America needs more movies that aspire to what Gangs aspires to: a fusion of ethical allegory, psychological case study, historical detail, environmental recreation, and romantic fantasy. But movies with ambition are still obligated to find deserving or at least diverting avenues for these designs, and Gangs of New York just can’t satisfy that demand. In an auspicious but no doubt accidental boon, the glaring mismatch between Scorsese’s goals and his achieved product prevent the movie from being a total wash. Besides some incidental pleasures of art or performance scattered over the movie, and the unfakeable verve for moviemaking that Scorsese has in spades over most of his peers, what Gangs of New York most memorably offers us is an uncanny symmetry of form and content: the movie screen, like America, emerges here as a place where the individual dreams and desires of thousands of people rattle around, often violently, inside an expansive territory that’s vastly bigger and messier than the sum of its own parts. A high-minded but unfocused epic that feels too large and yet also too small for its own natty britches, a screed against nativism and bigotry where the nativist bigots are nonetheless the most vivid and powerful characters—perhaps this movie is exactly the filmic epitaph that 2002 deserves.

And if the cinema, like America, is a compendium of favorite myths, Gangs of New York is alert, too, to how weirdly gratifying it can be, for artists and audiences, to reprise and riff on those myths. The movie, after all, knows how to quickly lasso our moral outrage, allowing Oskar Schindler to be slaughtered point-blank in the street by the last of the Mohicans. Later, the melancholic mood of the film’s conclusion was only reinforced to me by the sad sight of a great Method actor being impaled on the sharp blade of callow superstardom. Many sequences yield ancillary associations like these, and they are often more resonant than the immediate narrative contexts. A cinephile like Scorsese, as he has demonstrated in his own documentaries, fully sanctions the right of a filmgoer to seize whatever eccentric pleasure he finds in a movie, no matter the director’s original intent. But it is rare and inauspicious for a major film by a renowned auteur to depend so heavily on stray details and subjective response. Gangs of New York isn’t a terrible film, and it’s not even the worst of its kind that we’ve seen this year. I didn’t leave the theater hungry to wash it from my mind, as I did Road to Perdition or Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers. But I did exit with the suspicion that Gangs would quickly wash itself from my mind, and by any standard, with no matter what benefit of the doubt, that counts as a big disappointment. C


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: Martin Scorsese
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Original Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
Best Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Best Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Francesca Lo Schiavo
Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell
Best Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Best Original Song: "The Hands that Built America"
Best Sound: Tom Fleischman, Eugene Gearty, and Ivan Sharrock

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Martin Scorsese
Best Actor (Drama): Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Supporting Actress: Cameron Diaz
Best Original Song: "The Hands that Built America"

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Day-Lewis)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actor (Day-Lewis)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Day-Lewis; tie); Best Art Direction
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actor (Day-Lewis)
Satellite Awards: Best Actor, Drama (Day-Lewis); Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing

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