One of our essential films from last year was Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It told the story of a young man played by Leonardo DiCaprio who pretends to be someone else in order to get close to an enemy and bring him down.
That film is great, and along with my fellow editors, we discussed the genius of its construction [as well as its immeasurable entertainment value] on the first Cinessential podcast.
Now, what if I told you Scorsese told nearly the same story not a half-decade earlier? And that this earlier version is better? And that it was one of the richest pieces of cinematic historical fiction ever? And that it’s one of the most underrated movies of all time? And that it’s perhaps my favorite Martin Scorsese movie?
You’d probably say I needed to have my head examined [perhaps by Madolyn from The Departed].
Gangs of New York is commonly thought of as a minor misstep by Scorsese—a film that received mildly positive reviews and ten Oscar nominations because it was supposed to—and the first thing that comes to mind for most is probably either DiCaprio’s or Cameron Diaz’s performance.
I’m not saying these opinions are wildly wrong—I would never judge like that—but these opinions are wildly wrong.
As much as I love this film, I can’t really defend the two performances mentioned above. This is DiCaprio’s first of many collaborations with Scorsese, and while they’d make magic later, the young man is still finding his footing in his post-Titanic career. Diaz, meanwhile, is simply miscast and overmatched.
If you can’t enjoy Gangs of New York in spite of these hiccups, however, I implore you to give it another shot. It’s a real Scorsese passion project. Maybe his biggest. He’s told stories in the past about wondering around Manhattan as a young boy and seeing hardly marked gravestones of New Yorkers who lived generations ago in the Five Points area depicted in the film. He read the book upon which this film is based in 1977, but it took 25 years to come to life. His passion doesn’t always translate satisfyingly—the big fight in the prologue feels more than a little like a WWE fight—but it’s seeping through every frame of the picture.
There are also a dozen or more performances [outside of the problematic pair out in front] that really make the film special for me. The list, predictably but appropriately, starts with Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. This is one of my five favorite performances in movie history. Bill is a detestable character in every sense—a murderous cretin whose thirst for power is matched only by his hatred of the other. Day-Lewis imbues him with a semblance of a conscience, however, that plays out in the film’s standout scene when he addresses DiCaprio’s Amsterdam late at night while draped in a tattered American flag. He outlines his principles and reverence for the rival gang leader he killed a decade earlier, Priest Vallon [who is, unbeknownst to him, Amsterdam’s father]. In this scene, Bill doesn’t earn sympathy, but a modicum of respect. You should know better, but the writing, directing, and acting are strong enough to sway you temporarily to his side. If we’re comparing this film to The Departed, what does that movie look like with a dialed-in Day-Lewis in the place of on-another-planet Jack Nicholson?
In smaller roles, Jim Broadbent plays a local political leader, Boss Tweed, with enough sleaze to make you sick. Brendan Gleeson is an honest bounty hunter turned barber and sheriff. Gary Lewis’ McGloin is a hilariously and pathetically sycophantic yes man. And there’s a woman named Hell-Cat Maggie [Cara Seymour] who fights with blades on her hands that mimic a cat’s nails. I told you this movie is insane.
The film ends on a note you wouldn’t expect. In the middle of an insane battle between Amsterdam’s and Bill’s gangs, the New York Draft Riots break out and crush nearly everyone and everything in the Five Points. Eventually, those who are left standing bury the dead, and we watch as a century passes, leaving these bodies forgotten beneath brush and cement.
Scorsese’s point is that we stand everyday on the shoulders of giants without even realizing it, and while it’s hardly subtle, the film’s breathlessness as it approaches its conclusion makes everything hit home with a surprising emotional wallop.
I hope you enjoy your coverage of Gangs of New York this week and eventually grow to appreciate the film even just a little bit more.
You can look forward to articles on subjects including:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 8
- An exploration into the film's themes of immigration and assimilation
- Re-thinking the 75th Academy Awards
- Related Review of Martin Scorsese's latest, Silence
- And more!