Gangs of New York (2002)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brendan Gleeson

Gangs of New York is the movie that made me love movies, which is like saying that All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the album which made someone love music. I apologize for nothing.

The first half of Gangs of New York is remarkable. In 1862, Irish immigrants are pouring into the city and facing alarming opposition from the so-called “Natives,” a faction of xenophobes who, in 1846 established their dominance over Manhattan by winning a massive, scheduled brawl over a conglomerate of Irish gangs called the Dead Rabbits. The Dead Rabbits were led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), an intense and powerful leader who was killed by his opposite number from the Native Side: Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis, in what I will always sentimentally maintain is his best role). Bill, who holds virtually everyone in contempt, respects the Priest. In the moments after Priest’s death, Bill commands the remaining “soldiers” that “ears and noses will be the trophies of the day, but no hand will touch him.” Later in the film, Bill recounts the story of how he lost his eye – it was at the hand of Priest Vallon:

And when he came to finish me, I couldn’t look him in the eye. He spared me because he wanted me to live in shame. This was a great man.

According to Bill in 1863, he “killed the last honorable man fifteen years ago.” The rest is desultory, a decade and a half of maintaining a squalid fiefdom in the Five Points.

On the day that Bill the Butcher killed Priest Vallon, Vallon’s son, Amsterdam, was captured and sent to an orphanage. He returns to the Five Points in 1862, something like a grown man (DiCaprio), and with only one goal in mind: he lives to avenge his father’s death. The first half of the movie continues on in this vein, as Amsterdam renegotiates himself with his old stompin’ grounds and discovers that much has changed. Some of the Irish elements who formerly resisted Bill now work for him. Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly) and McGloin (Gary Lewis) have actively entered Bill’s employ; Happy Jack is a police officer who does some of Bill’s dirty work for him, while McGloin, who carried the Dead Rabbits’ standard into battle, is now a member of Bill’s entourage. Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas, twenty years after playing Ell-ee-ott) and his gang always make sure to give some of their loot to Bill; in the meantime, Bill seems to show a little favoritism to the gang which, under Amsterdam’s leadership, calls itself “the Ghoul Gang.” (Some of the best unintentional humor in the film comes watching Daniel Day-Lewis, whose character is only somewhat literate, say “ghoul” a few times.) Others among the Irish resistance, like Hell-cat Maggie (Cara Seymour) have drifted into alcoholism and listlessness. Of those Irish who fought in Paradise Square in 1846, only one seems to be on his feet: Monk McGinn (Gleeson), who was a hired hand in the battle. He carves a notch into his shillelagh for every man he kills to remind himself what he owes God. McGinn is a barber, and still manages to maintain his dignity during the reign of Bill the Butcher.

Amsterdam’s plan is not merely to assassinate Bill, but to do it in front of his entire coterie. Happily for his plans, Amsterdam has just such an occasion in mind. Every year, on the anniversary of the Battle of Paradise Square, Bill has a party to celebrate the victory of the Natives. Amsterdam means to assassinate him there. But things quickly go awry. Amsterdam very rapidly becomes one of Bill’s most favored associates, gaining access to his inner circle. During a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (hoo boy!), an old Irishman in a distinctive waistcoat tries to murder Bill. Amsterdam sees him coming and manages to strike the man’s arm while he fires: the shot, instead of killing Bill, only wounds him. (Bill recovers quickly enough to unleash one of the finest barrages of bleaching profanity in the history of film.) Amsterdam is horrified. He knows that he stopped the man not to ensure that he’d get the chance to kill Bill, but to save Bill’s life out of loyalty. Bill’s loyalty to Amsterdam seems equally strong, though not nearly as conflicted. “I never had a son,” he tells Amsterdam in a quiet moment, the closest thing that he could possibly say to, “I love you.”

The party goes badly for Amsterdam. Bill is forewarned by Johnny, jealous, among other things, of the attention Bill has lavished on Amsterdam, that the son means to avenge the father’s death. First, Bill decides to do a knife-throwing act with Amsterdam’s girlfriend, Jenny (Cameron Diaz), as his “assistant.” Strung thin, Amsterdam seizes an opportunity in the party to strike the blow – throwing a knife from distance – but Bill’s knife finds its way into Amsterdam’s belly first. Literally tortured in front of a huge crowd, – Amsterdam “ain’t earned a death” from Bill – he retreats into hiding while Jenny nurses him, planning a move for the both of them to San Francisco. So ends the first half of the movie.

This summary makes the film sound very linear, as if it moved directly from one event to another. This is not so. The film, in many ways, depicts with surprising intelligence the look of 1860s New York. A troubadourish dude walks past a brawl, a terrier chasing rats while men gamble feverishly, Hell-cat Maggie as she puts an ear in the jar and takes a tug from a pair of kegs. Paradise Square is surveyed in all of its gory detail. A tour of elite New Yorkers visits the Five Points guided by Happy Jack; Bill the Butcher steals the show. He kisses the hand of an eligible Schemerhorn daughter. (“Orange blossom. Delicious.”)

All of the turmoil and action of the Five Points is interspersed with footage that reminds us of the Civil War background. Irishmen, fresh off the boat, are packed almost immediately onto another one: given a uniform and a gun and food (hopefully), they are sent off as cannon fodder in the Civil War. A minister and a grieving mother walk past the coffins being unloaded from a ship; he tries to console her, telling her that he lost his son at Antietam. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is met with a parade but also condemnation from many citizens; after all, this is the New York City that elected Fernando Wood mayor. “Lincoln will make all white men slaves!” a voice cries out. Bill the Butcher tosses a knife at a sketch of his president.

Two other characters matter throughout this first half. Jenny is, in Amsterdam’s memorable diction, “a prim-lookin’ stargazer.” She is also one of the several links that the film casts between Bill and Amsterdam. She used to be one of Bill’s several lovers. Amsterdam finds a scar she has from an abortion; since Bill doesn’t like women with scars, she’s been cast off. Amsterdam is angry – he doesn’t want any part of “the Butcher’s leavings” – but the two of them find themselves thrusting against one another. One of those “other things” feeding Johnny’s envy, which I referenced above, is the fact that Johnny wants Jenny but is continually put aside.

The second is Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Tweed is the counterpoint, and a masterful one, to Bill and Amsterdam’s basic reliance on violence for power. Bill, in particular, lusts for the opportunity to fight, sacralizing “the ancient laws of combat.” He recognizes the “murderer’s rage” in Amsterdam; it’s one of the things that endears Amsterdam to him as a potential, albeit Irish, protege. Amsterdam’s inclination, especially in the first half, is to hit first and talk later. He has a hair-trigger temper, and virtually any insult, no matter how small, turns into a brawl. McGinn attempts to steer him differently – “If you’re not strong, then you’d better be smart” – but as the poet says, he who lives by the throwing knife will be disfigured by the throwing knife. Only afterwards does Amsterdam learn McGinn’s lesson, and he looks to Tweed to execute it. In the early goings, Tweed makes a partnership with Bill in order to add “muscle” to Tammany Hall’s methods of enforcement. As Tweed comes to realize that Bill is, at the very least, deeply unstable, he and Amsterdam set up a meeting. Tweed is what New York will become after the Civil War, and he knows it. Bill’s violent brand of persuasion is sexier, but Tweed believes in the importance of setting up a political base; unlike Bill, Tweed recognizes that the Irish immigrants and their votes are the way of the future. Amsterdam comes to learn that lesson himself.

This movie, even if it ended with Amsterdam’s degradation rather than his triumph, would be fabulous, probably only inferior to Raging Bull and Goodfellas among Scorsese’s oeuvre. The problem is that the movie is nearly three hours long, and that the movie continues after Amsterdam’s maiming. There is a marvelous story to be told about American tyranny, about the immigrant experience, about just how firmly entrenched the powerful are. Do you choose bellicose racism as Bill does, or do you throw your lot in with benevolent corruption as Tweed does? It hardly seems to matter; you will be expunged and forgotten in the slop and grime of the Five Points all the same while someone else wears a tall hat and eats well. The first half of the film doesn’t end with our hero triumphant; rather, it ends with our hero lying on the floor in the catacombs of a run-down building in Paradise Square, scarred and burned and silent.

I don’t know that that film entered anybody’s mind, but this is a movie which, if it had been made in the late ’70s or early ’80s, probably would have gone in that direction. Alas, the film goes Hollywood instead.

The rest of the film deals with Amsterdam’s rise from the ashes, about how he resurrects the Dead Rabbits, about how he allies with Boss Tweed to steal power from the Natives in the Five Points through the ballot box, about the next great battle in Paradise Square between Natives and Dead Rabbits. Even this would be palatable, if not precisely glorious. Some of the movie’s more effective moments land in this second half – for example, I’ve always enjoyed Monk McGinn’s rise to political office, and Monk is one of the movie’s most enjoyable characters.

So naturally, the film ends with the New York Draft Riots of 1863, If someone made a three-hour movie called Gangs of New Orleans, which for two hours was a gritty tale of revenge and blood and shame set in early 2000s New Orleans, and which for the last hour was a story about Hurricane Katrina hitting the city, we would be aghast. We would accuse the people who made the story of forgetting what the beginning in making the end. Gangs of New York  functions marvelously without the sudden interruption of history, but when it comes, the whole movie is derailed. The second battle between Natives and Dead Rabbits would have been anticlimactic, but the Draft Riots, appearing so suddenly, trampling the characters we’ve spent two and a half hours with rather than using them as its spurs, is even worse. It’s off-topic, and the film has no recourse to come back to its main characters afterward, because almost all of them are dead.

Perhaps Gangs of New York shows us why no one makes a hobby of reenacting the Credit Mobilier scandal. Brutal, bloody encounters are so much easier to make intense; the lead-up to and Battle of the Five Points is like a hit of cocaine, but the high wears off of as the chain reactions cannot sustain themselves. As much as we want to believe that Amsterdam’s phoenixesque rebirth can match that intensity, the film does not linger on or create heat when the fight becomes political or borderline respectable.

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