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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.

DiCaprio and Scorsese on the set
DiCaprio and Scorsese on the set
Started and stalled to varying degrees over the course of thirty years, Miramax finally announced that Gangs was a go and that Scorsese would film in Rome at the legendary Cinecittà studios on fifteen acres. This must have been irresistible, whatever the potential cost. The notion of filming there, the fabled facility utilized by his idols Fellini, Rossellini, and even portions of his beloved le Mépris by Godard – along with the tacit carte blanche afforded to precious few directors – must have made Scorsese drunk with possibilities. Luring the dynamic, self-exiled Day-Lewis as Bill probably had a similar effect; satisfying the commercially minded Weinsteins with the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz was shrewd, sober, and even potentially interesting. The stage was literally set for a sprawling, truly epic film that promised to say as much about the microcosm of the late nineteenth century Five Points as it did current America. Mornings after, however, can often prove hellish, especially when one is still in the middle of what was started while less clear eyed. Or, in the case of Gangs, perhaps even vice versa.

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.

There's more than snow in the forecast
There's more than snow in the forecast
Beginning with vicious bloodletting on the massive, snow-covered sets, Gangs immediately struggles for its footing. The sequence is brutal and eye-catching, but it is also surprisingly crass and vacuous. Scorsese has handled extreme violence with an equally unflinching eye in the past, but often with a visual poetry and a real sense of greater thematic purpose (see Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, or even Kundun). He has not previously included, if memory serves, such gratuitous nonsense as a jumping woman with bizarrely pointed teeth biting the ear off another. Violence is inextricably woven into Gangs' narrative, and the brutality captured is arguably necessary to some extent. However, as presented, it feels tawdry and hollow, explosive for the sake of ostentatious technique – a “spectacle of fearsome acts” indeed, but to no crucial end. Effectively edited by Thelma Schoonmaker in a manner that would make the old Soviets proud, the sequence is compulsively viewable in a horrific car accident kind of way. It is also nearly saved by the majestic set design and the sheer presence of Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon and the bizarre, jarring introduction of Cutting (Day-Lewis), who will rule over the film in a way that Scorsese does not.

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.

Hell on Earth

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.

the natty
the natty "Butcher" and company
As for the acting, Day-Lewis’ much heralded performance is truly a marvel. Although other actors may have garnered more press (and some year-end awards), I suspect that it is Day-Lewis’ Bill that will be written about and discussed fifty years from now. (Ponder, for a moment, Gangs without Day-Lewis’ presence). DiCaprio, unfortunately, appears tentative and unfocused; in all fairness, his decision must have been an unbearably difficult one. Though wise to not attempt to chew the scenery vis-à-vis Day-Lewis, his performance as Amsterdam is thereby relegated to mostly sulking and brooding, rather than one informed by murderous, contained rage and deep psychological conflict resulting from amorphous loyalties as he falls in with Bill. In the initial battle, the respect and loyalty granted to Priest by his warriors is effortlessly established through Neeson’s imposing physicality and vocal command. The only similarity of DiCaprio’s Amsterdam to Neeson’s Priest is his surname; DiCaprio is never truly convincing as even a potential leader of men. (It should be noted that lack of physical presence does not stop Day-Lewis from imposing true menace – that he does so while dressed in some truly ridiculous outfits is further testament to what he accomplishes here.)

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.

the Face Off

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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