Film Of The Day: Gangs Of New York (2002)

July 21, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Showing tonight on Film4 as part of its Leonardo DiCaprio season. Ironically, I won’t get to see it as I’ll be in the cinema watching Inception.

Be warned: this one’s quite spoilery by my standards…

Gangs of New York
(Martin Scorsese, US,2002)

When two tribes go to war… you get a stalemate. Individually, Scorsese’s keen period analysis and fruity melodrama are highly enjoyable. Together, they cancel out.

There are two schools of thought regarding Martin Scorsese. One insists that he can do nothing well but gangsters and violence; the other believes that versatility (musicals, comedy, costume drama) is his best kept secret. Gangs of New York is an interesting exception to the rule for both camps. It’s Scorsese’s sole attempt at the historical epic but he reverts to apparent type by turning it into ye olde Goodfellas…and yet it’s his one sojourn into gang territory that aficionados don’t rate.

The result must be considered a failure when set alongside the sheer number of Scorsese masterpieces, but the reasons why it’s a failure make it one of his most fascinating films. Clearly, Scorsese wanted to follow his interest in the anthropology of his home that he initiated in Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence; this is the third and final part of a trilogy going back in time to explore the roots of New York. It’s a rigorous, ironic tour of a pre-civilised, even barbarous community, and Scorsese brings his curator’s eye to rites and rituals caught between the primitive and the social. Admittedly, the names, fads and particularly fashions of this world appear very silly to modern eyes (not least Bill the Butcher’s large moustache and even larger hat) but Scorsese takes these things seriously, and so must we.

Visually, the film is full of extraordinary, extravagant touches uncommon for a director whose defining imagery is often surprisingly stark. Scorsese’s cinema is all about the dynamism through editing, but Gangs of New York thrives on mise en scene. The opening ‘stain the snow with blood’ fight, British bulldog with machetes and clubs, feels like the sprawling, brawling set-piece of a seasoned action director. But even the quietest, character-driven scenes take place against a richly textured, lived-in world. This is a triumph of production design, which takes full advantage of Cinecitta’s facilities to create an internally consistent world of dirt and timber. Allied to the proliferation of strange subcultures and Scorsese’s willingness to push performances into the theatrical, it’s an authentic attempt at an American Dickensian aesthetic.

It’s a shame that there isn’t a story to go with it. Scorsese gets trapped between the demands of his non-fiction source and the needs of mainstream audiences to have a hero to root for, and the actual story of the film is disappointingly trite. Amsterdam Vallon’s revenge quest is nothing new and the film ticks every beat in the genre – befriending the monster, saving his life to ensure he dies at the right hands, the failed attempt and subsequent unmasking, and then the final redemptive kill. It’s pure melodrama, which might be a deliberate nod to the era or possibly just indifferent storytelling.

Either way, it’s only the commitment of the actors that makes it watchable. A badly miscast Cameron Diaz (seriously, stick to comedy) can do little but smile through gritted teeth, but such is the wealth of character actors that her presence doesn’t destabilise things; when you know Jim Broadbent or Brendan Gleeson will be along any moment, she’s easy to ignore. But, despite the strength in depth, this is a tale of two men. Leonardo DiCaprio came in for some stick at the time but he works wonders with his paper-thin role, and retrospect shows that much of the subtle intensity he’s perfected in further collaborations with Scorsese was grounded here. DiCaprio’s real problem, of course, is that he’s up against Daniel Day-Lewis in a barking-mad display of menace and deadly charm, filling the screen with acres of chutzpah and flamboyant technique. Interestingly, though, it’s just as much a foundation for Day-Lewis (notably his subsequent performance in There Will Be Blood) as it is for DiCaprio.

That uncanny sense of the film being a work-in-progress owes much to the tittle-tattle rumours of bust-ups between Scorsese and paymaster Harvey Weinstein, but there’s an uneasy friction on-screen that finally rips open the film during its final act. Until this point, the social politics have been lurking in the background, fascinating enough but, in dramatic terms, just window dressing for the pulp intensity of the central story. But Scorsese belatedly attempts to invert the film’s opposing forces of entertainment and education, foregrounding historical context so abruptly it feels as if a reel is missing.

In theory, Scorsese’s theme during this climactic stretch, of a city created by rival criminals who decide to join forces against the Establishment, is wonderful – a witty, revisionist poke in the eye for conservative thinking. But the red herring of the central plot gets in the way. The story Scorsese ends up telling ought to have built organically throughout, but Scorsese’s instincts have always been towards the solipsistic loners, the vigilantes who insist on doing things their way. Something has to give, and here it’s dramatic satisfaction. The fateful, long-delayed dust-up between Bill and Amsterdam becomes a side-show to much poorly-explained sound and fury amongst the extras. Much as Scorsese hints visually that the effect is intentional (wreathed in funereal smoke, these are men cast adrift from progress) it’s a damp squib of an ending. What’s doubly galling is that Scorsese had already delivered his most incisive social comment an hour or so before, in a bravura tracking shot that sees immigrants marching off one boat to become citizens and then frogmarched onto a second as newly-drafted soldiers. Maybe the pulp-before-politics approach of the film’s early stages was the right one after all.

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