Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Gangs Of New York
* * *
This is about as flawed as a film can be and still work; nevertheless, there are great big hunks of brilliance caught in its teeth. Gangs of New York earns its marks from the sheer force of director Martin Scorsese's vision, a fully realized 19th century New York, and by way of a stunning performance from Daniel Day Lewis as glass-eye tapping, 'Nativist' gang lord Bill "the Bucher" Cutting (think Robert De Niro after a heroic dose of hallucinogens). The city and the butcher are both supreme cinematic achievements, both constructed of such intense and bizarre strokes of inspiration that they would be laughable were they not essayed to the screen with intelligence and confidence. As it is, both director and actor wave their freak flags with authority and menace, the very strangeness of their choices lending them unassailable believability. They are simply too utterly themselves to be false.
But the story. Ah, if only . . .
If the story wasn't pure amateur hour, this could actually have been the career-definer that everybody was (perhaps unrealistically) expecting from Scorsese. But instead of using the city as a setting for the kind of the character-driven study that marks most of Scorsese's most revered work (Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, for example), Gangs shoehorns all of its strengths into a tired revenge fantasy quest cum romance plot recycled from much lazier films than this one.
Here's the rhubarb: Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio in a sad little goatee and mullet) is out to revenge himself on Bill The Butcher, because Bill killed Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In a thrilling opening sequence, the jingoist Nativists, led by Bill, face off against Vallon's Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang, for control of the Five Points neighborhood. When the battle is done, the Rabbits are crushed, Priest is dead, and Bill is the undisputed lord of the neighborhood. The battle (preamble included) is one of the most indelible moments in film this year, an extraordinary combination of beauty and violence, and as the camera moves back into God's-eye view, the snow goes from white to pink. We see New York of 150 years ago spread out before us, and it is like looking at pictures of your parents as teenagers - simultaneously familiar and alien. The film spends the rest of its running time trying to once again capture this transcendence and energy, this sense of the ongoing "wow!"
Whenever it comes close, however, we find ourselves pulled back into Amsterdam's mission for retribution. Making this film about Amsterdam is like going to Disney World for the lines. We know that by the end we will have a showdown, and this knowledge completely undercuts any possible suspense. Frankly, I couldn't have cared less whether Amsterdam failed or succeeded or dropped out of the picture entirely. I certainly didn't care if he ended up with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz, in a pointless and thankless role). DiCaprio is typically a fine actor, but he is given nothing much in the way of character, and therefore is mercilessly blown off the screen by Day Lewis - the idea that Amsterdam would be a match for Bill in a fight is just laughable. I suspect the reason that Scorsese renders Amsterdam as nothing but a cipher is because he himself has no interest in the story that the character represents - perhaps a plot with more recognizable Hollywood elements was necessary to secure Hollywood money for such an ambitious effort. According to interviews I've read, it was historical fact that attracted the director to the material in the first place (the Butcher was a historical figure, and his namesake in Gangs is a composite of several actual gang leaders).
Despite my annoyances, I was never bored. There is much that is fascinating on the periphery, such as an astounding harbor shot, which tracks from Irish getting off the boat to the conscription checkpoints where they are signed up, to the Army boat where they are shipped off to fight in the Civil War, and finally to a boat back from the front, unloading row upon row of coffins. In one take, the assembly line of war is contained, and a later image will conflate the history of the country with the history of New York. It is an off-hand rebuke to Bill's anti-immigrant sentiments, and a reminder of the blood that was mixed into the national foundation, as is the pointed sign advertising Bill's gang of third generation residents as "Native Americans" - words that hold a different meaning in this time than they did in that.
Given that Bill is obviously the character the director is actually interested in, I would have liked to see a Gangs of New York devoted to him; his rise to power, the depth of his xenophobia, his odd but unshakeable moral code, I would have liked a further clarifying of the surviving Rabbits, the process by which they compromised their ideals (their corruption is simply assumed here), his politician's compartmentalization that allows him to associate with the very Irish he is sworn to destroy. I would like to understand the meaning behind his cryptic final words.
Instead we have a plot point as a hero, and a visionary misfire. Eventually, the periphery breaks the seams, as the Conscription Riots welter through the town, but by then we have spent too much time watching the wrong people, and the result is mainly confusion. Gangs of New York is still a contender, but it coulda been an all-time champ. I want to give five stars to the half of it that an enduring classic; the rest of it deserves a Bronx Cheer. I'll put the final verdict somewhere between.