- Gangs of New York (2002) movie review: As a crass, cruel, bigoted “Real American,” British actor Daniel Day-Lewis delivers what could well be the best performance of his career in Martin Scorsese’s flawed yet engrossing sociopolitical period drama.
- Also memorable is Leonardo DiCaprio as a youthful Irish immigrant and Day-Lewis’ revenge-bent “adopted son.”
- Gangs of New York was up for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Original Screenplay. It failed to top a single category.
Gangs of New York movie review: Daniel Day-Lewis wants to ‘keep away your poor, your tired…’ in gripping Scorsese drama
Those who think that gangs and urban violence are a modern phenomenon should take a look at Martin Scorsese’s ambitious 2002 period drama Gangs of New York, an often riveting tale of revenge, bigotry, and power lust mostly set in mid-1860s New York City and revolving around the blood-drenched, corruption-infested birth of the “modern” United States.
Scorsese had already depicted the perilous streets of his hometown in films as diverse as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and After Hours, but in Gangs of New York he goes back in time to an era when much of that city was a chaotic “Third World” melting pot – one in which the melting took place whenever members of rival ethnic gangs shed red bodily fluids on top of one another.
Although it also transpires in 19th-century New York, the filmmaker’s genteel The Age of Innocence (1993) stayed within the confines of the city’s wealthy districts, located galaxies away from the wretched neighborhoods of immigrants and working-class Americans. Gangs of New York, however, is set right in the ‘hood, the Five Points section of town (recreated at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome) where a young Irishman known as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson).
The murderer – Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a.k.a. Bill the Butcher; inspired by real-life nativist bigot Bill Poole (1821–1855) – is the one-eyed leader of a Protestant gang that wants to wipe out the newly arrived Irish Catholic immigrants. Unaware of Amsterdam’s real identity, Bill takes him in as a surrogate son. The truth, as to be expected, eventually emerges in blood-red fashion.
Provincial civil wars
Although the central narrative sounds conventional, Scorsese and (credited) screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan contextualize it by weaving the various personal stories into the sociopolitical framework of the mid-19th-century United States. The gang rivalries and personal vendettas seen in Gangs of New York are thus the equivalent of provincial civil wars placed within the larger context of the Civil War that is tearing the country apart.
Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher, for their part, are archetypes of their unsettling time, when the U.S. – with the end of slavery and the arrival of cheap immigrant labor – was fast transforming itself from a socially stratified agrarian society into a more malleable industrial one.
The Old Guard, represented by Bill and his followers, is unwilling to accept the inevitable changes. In sharp contrast to the American “Land of Immigrants” mythos, the new arrivals in Gangs of New York are – literally – received with sticks and stones.
Represented by the Irishman Amsterdam and his fellow newcomers, the New Guard is ready to take over from the Old Guard and proceed with the forging of the new nation. That is, until they themselves become the Old Guard, determined not to be “superseded” by another wave of new blood.
In order to bring to life that fractious period in American history, Martin Scorsese (who can be spotted in a cameo as a wealthy man inside his mansion) relied on a team of first-rate artists and technicians, among them production designer Dante Ferretti (The Canterbury Tales, The Aviator) and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Lili Marleen, Goodfellas), both of whom create some of the most impressive work of their careers.
Keeping things moving are the director’s own fluid camera work and Thelma Schoonmaker’s concise editing skills. The opening sequence, in particular, is a fantastic example of bravura filmmaking, as the camera follows Irish gang members through the seemingly endless innards of a New York slum.
On the downside, Schoonmaker’s editing is at times concise to the point of abruptness, possibly because Miramax ordered Scorsese’s 3-hour-plus final cut pared down to 168 minutes. And like most American directors, Scorsese messes things up in the film’s more intimate – and appallingly artificial – sex scenes.
Name cast mostly in top form
With the exception of Cameron Diaz’s much too modern and much too coy petty thief Jenny Everdeane – who also happens to be Amsterdam’s inevitable love interest – the other key performers in Gangs of New York manage to hold their ground among the elaborate sets.
Henry Thomas (the little boy in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) is excellent as the traitor Johnny Sirocco; Leonardo DiCaprio brings the required inner strength to his determined, steely-eyed Amsterdam; and Daniel Day-Lewis exudes charisma through every pore of his larger-than-life Bill the Butcher.
Day-Lewis, an actor who tends to drown his characterizations in an ocean of mannerisms – see My Left Foot, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar; In the Name of the Father; and, to a lesser extent, Scorsese’s own The Age of Innocence – delivers the performance of a lifetime in Gangs of New York.
Despite plenty of chances, not once does he allow his villain to fall into the bottomless pit of caricature or self-parody. In fact, Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is so frightening – and so fascinating – because he is so monstrously human. With glistening eyes (one real, one fake) and clenched teeth, the ruthless, power-hungry xenophobe encompasses all that is ugly about Americans – and human beings in general – then and now.
‘Third World’ beginnings
In Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese demonstrates that the United States went from chaotic “Third World” nation to (a tad less chaotic) global superpower not only through honest and hard labor, but also – perhaps chiefly – through the unscrupulous use of force and coercion.
At the end of the movie, the Draft Riots – New York’s own mini “French Revolution” – are squelched by the U.S. Army’s systematic slaughter of the anti-military draft and anti-elite protesters. Their blood colors the streets red; those same streets from which would spring up the skyscrapers triumphantly shown at film’s end.
It’s the birth of a new America, where, as the vote-rigging politician William ‘Boss’ Tweed (Jim Broadbent) explains, “the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it’s being broken.”
There was to be no more mob rule in filthy streets. From then on, “the appearance of the law” would disguise the corruption and abuses generated from inside immaculate government and corporate office rooms.
The Age of Innocence, Scorsese and his screenwriters tell us in this remarkable cinematic achievement, has never truly existed in the United States. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan.
From a screen story by Jay Cocks.
Note: Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York treads on some of the same territory shown in the film.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio. Daniel Day-Lewis. Cameron Diaz. Jim Broadbent. Henry Thomas. Liam Neeson. Brendan Gleeson. John C. Reilly. Gary Lewis. Stephen Graham. Eddie Marsan. Alec McCowen. David Hemmings. Cara Seymour. Tim Pigott-Smith. Barbara Bouchet. Michael Byrne. Lucy Davenport. Angela Pleasence.
Cameo: Martin Scorsese.
“Gangs of New York Movie (2002)” endnotes
Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis Gangs of New York movie images: Miramax Films.
“Gangs of New York Movie (2002): Day-Lewis Embodies All-American Nativism” last updated in September 2021.