Turf Wars and Dueling Ambitions:
Another Look at Gangs of New York on DVD
“This is a fine American mess.” – William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis)
July 16, 2003 | Martin Scorsese has maintained – all but sworn, really - that the 167-minute version of Gangs of New York released in theaters (and now on DVD) is the definitive version that he intended to present. Viewing this spectacular mess of a film with distance from the sturm und drang that accompanied its initial release, Scorsese’s comments seem more akin to a politician in the throes of a particularly heated campaign than an artist truly supporting his work. Not only politics makes strange bedfellows – just as Boss Tweed and his nakedly corrupt Tammany Hall had to cater to thugs such as Bill the Butcher to achieve a practical and brutally effective symbiosis, I suspect that a similar brand of distasteful, bitter compromise had to be hashed out for the final cut of Gangs. And not for nothing did Scorsese (presumably) sneak in the hardly veiled dig, “Please don’t make that noise again Harvey,” spoken by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) after stabbing a fellow poker player through the hand.
Scorsese's enthusiasm for the project was completely understandable, as Herbert Asbury’s source work is replete with many of Scorsese’s historic concerns: the violence, ethics, and codification of male behavior in small, indigenous groups; a larger than life character in Bill, a borderline psychotic infused with an almost mythic sense of self; and, most obviously, the roots of Scorsese’s future home, the vantage point and filter from which he views the entire world.
Rumors of massive financial hemorrhaging and internal conflicts abounded during production, and when three writers were credited – with a reportedly uncredited fourth – it only added to the speculation that something was horribly wrong (as it invariably does). When twenty-odd minutes premiered at the Cannes Film Festival of 2002, it suggested nothing less than an act of preemption, damage control to quell the rumors. When the world’s longest, most expensive trailer also seemed to indicate that DiCaprio was being obliterated by his co-star Day-Lewis in scenes they shared, eyebrows were raised yet again. However, the guise largely worked: the general consensus from the screening was that Gangs may just be huge, and it seemed that most were willing to give Scorsese a massive benefit of the doubt. When Miramax finally released the film, many critics largely carried over this benefit, as Gangs inexplicably drew very positive – albeit somewhat guarded – reviews. I sincerely doubt any other director in the world would have been afforded such deference based upon what eventually made it to the screen.
A quick summation of the basic plot: Priest, the leader of the “Dead Rabbits” and other ragtag gangs of Irish-Catholic immigrants, is killed by Cutting, a rival leader of generally Dutch-Anglo “Natives” who despise the (interpreted) invasion of their country by “foreign hordes.” Priest's son Amsterdam (DiCaprio), then a child, escapes the carnage and returns to the Five Points after a sixteen-year absence, planning to exact revenge for his Father’s death. He is soon taken into the fold and, in effect, becomes Bill’s right-hand man. Amsterdam also falls for pickpocket Jenny (Diaz), who is ambiguously tethered to Bill.
This unimaginative and insipid love story elicits the most mundane – and regrettably rather lengthy – aspects of Gangs; it does, however, set the stage for the electrically charged (and brilliantly edited) knife throwing sequence in which Bill, having learned of Amsterdam’s identity and involvement with Jenny, decides to partake in his own unique brand of fun with cutlery. It also adds some sinew to one of the truly great sequences of the film, when the wounded Bill speaks with Amsterdam while wrapped in an American flag. All of the proceedings, it should be noted, are expertly captured by Scorsese’s ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.
In the midst of the commercially minded love story, one can sense Scorsese trying with all his might to break free and work on a larger canvas. However, the socio-political considerations that he attempts to explore suffer from lack of exposition, even though Scorsese is sure to note that Tweed is corrupt, support for the Civil War and Lincoln is not fervent in the Points, and that one could buy out of the draft for the then astronomical sum of $300.00. There is no real sense of industry in Gangs, nor is there a presence of the law abiding and diligent that helped New York - and the United States - achieve economic self-sufficiency and prosperity. Summarily put, there are too few sociological concerns in this iteration of the film that delve deeper than a cursory and trenchant examination of the violent underclass. (This is not necessarily a shortcoming by any means in and of itself; it is, however, rendered one when the intention of greater exploration is apparent.) When the Draft Riots intrude into the final act, it feels forced and altogether surprising. Culminating in Bill and Amsterdam’s fateful duel, Gangs’ dramatic momentum is shifted disastrously to the historical: Union cannons explode, the police begin firing on crowds, riots ensue, and ex-slaves are lynched. Presented in a hyper-kinetic manner by Scorsese, this only further muddles an already inchoate narrative. As a visual evocation of a specific hell informed by the Western as much as it is by Bosch, Gangs succeeds brilliantly. Regrettably, the personal and historical fail to coalesce at the same level.
Some of the seasoned, more established actors fare better: Neeson makes a strong impression in a very brief scene, as does Brendan Gleeson’s supporting turn as the stony Monk McGinn and Jim Broadbent’s slippery Tweed. John C. Reilly is completely wasted in a sorely underwritten and unexplored role. In the solely prominent female performance, Diaz fails to register on any meaningful level. Her character, though central as a component to Bill and Amsterdam’s motivations, is largely underdeveloped and she achieves no real dimension. It could be argued, I suppose, that any woman would have difficulty, as Gangs is largely a masculine affair. However, women can – and have – shone brightly in Scorsese’s similarly concerned films in smaller roles: Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas, and even Sharon Stone in Casino spring immediately to mind as intelligent, forceful actresses playing strong-willed women caught in a world of violently driven men.
In the final analysis - and as Gangs stands - it is almost impossible to critique. I refuse to accept (and this may very well be me giving Scorsese a benefit) that this is, by any means, the vision Scorsese intended. It is rare that a film is simultaneously too long and too short, but that impossible description is fitting for Gangs – it needs to be either a straightforward two hour revenger with historical and romantic trappings, or a four hour (+/-) epic that wholly synthesizes Scorsese’s ambitions with those of the Weinsteins. Subsequent viewings render this choppy, disjointed film smoother – this is borne, however, out of familiarity rather than coherence. To borrow a phrase, it is too much and not nearly enough.
The DVD format offers the promise of additional footage being incorporated into the film and the certainty of additional revenue being generated by the picture. That should be more than enough for the divergent parties to agree upon insofar as another release in concerned, and I look forward (hope?) to revisiting a less truncated Gangs in the future. At 167 minutes, Gangs of New York is merely a frustrating, spectacular, and occasionally brilliant evocation of what might have been.
Gangs of New York is now available in a two-disc edition, complete with a commentary track by Martin Scorsese.
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