GANGS OF NEW YORK: The overlooked masterpiece of Martin Scorsese

Faithful to its own premise GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) was a film bred in conflict from the beginning. Director Martin Scorsese dreamed for more than twenty years to make a film inspired by the non-fiction book The Gangs of New York (1927), by Herbert Ashbury, since buying the movie rights in 1979. It wasn’t until the new century that the New York-born filmmaker was able to make it happen. By 2000, Scorsese’s legacy seemed secure and he was already canonized as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.

The movie was produced by Harvey Weinstein for Miramax Films and Alberto Grimaldi. It was conceived as an American epic with huge production values that involved the building of massive sets in Cinecitta (Italia), the legendary Italian film studio. GANGS OF NEW YORK would become a modern film much in resemblance to the production system of classic Hollywood cinema. An ambitious personal project by Scorsese to say the least and an expensive studio film, inevitably causing frictions amongst all those involved.

Scorsese was instantly attracted by the anthropological nature of Ashbury’s book, inspiring correlations between New York’s past and present and the rest of the country by extension. The forge of an independent and democratic nation took time, battles with lots of casualties, and with confusing periods in which the civil and the savage have yet to establish clear limits. GANGS OF NEW YORK is framed during the American Civil War as a background, though the internal divisions and local issues of New York in 1862 dominate the story. This city is a place where law and order are estranged notions and there’s blood to be spilled before real democracy is consolidated in practice, not only as an idealist concept– “we all born of blood and tribulation”, narrates the character of Amsterdam towards the end.

Much has been said about how Weinstein intervention in the editing process which is rumored to have “mutilated” the film. Initially presented as a “three-hour cut”, the theatrical version got 2 hours and 40 minutes of runtime. Scorsese and his lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker had insisted several times that the “theatrical version” is the “final version”, so such a thing as a “director’s cut” didn’t really exist. This “misconception” has contributed to the current status of GANGS OF NEW YORK as an overlooked masterpiece within the Scorsese’s canon of his greatest films. The time has come to defend it and calling it one of the essential American films of the current century, even more considering how fresh and relevant remains in relation to its deepest concerns and themes about New York as an ever-changing symbol of progress, the fears and doubts behind the “soul” of America,  and the dangers that posed malignant rhetoric when in power.

By 2002, the year when it was released, GANGS OF NEW YORK was too pessimistic and dreadful after the not so distant events of 9/11 barely a year before.  The film ended with a time-lapse of New York’s evolution over the years, whose final image showed the Twin Towers. It was a brilliant conclusion that emphasizes how easy people forget their collective history failing to honor the struggles of anonymous ancestors who helped shape cities and countries as we know it thanks to their fights and sufferings. Even if it made a moderate profit, the movie may have caused mixed emotions for a mourning nation. In addition to that, it was released on December 20 (not exactly a family film for Christmas) more oriented to attract Oscar conversation instead of critical analysis.

GANGS OF NEW YORK collected 10 Academy Awards nominations, without winning any of themdue to an extremely competitive year (THE PIANIST, THE HOURS, CHICAGO, TALK TO HER, ROAD TO PERDITION were some of the winners of the ceremony). However, the inexcusable aspect of GANGS OF NEW YORK‘s reception is the fact that the film has been discussed too little compared with other Scorsese’s masterworks or other projects of the same era. Worse than that, those conversations hardly transcend the cheap gossip on the strained relation between the filmmaker and the head of Miramax Films (a name who brings more than one problem these days). Again, I insist, those anecdotes should be irrelevant if we focus on the richness that comes with the final result.

In a dazzling prologue set in 1846, GANGS OF NEW YORK starts with a grandiloquent street gang battle facing two camps aspiring to reclaim the dominion over a territory known as Five Points. On one side The Natives led by William “Bill The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and opposed against them is The Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leader of The Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants (one of the larger foreign communities in New York by that time). This particular confrontation is defined by the notion of one group believing that their birthright made them more real citizens, true Americans, than the ones who came to live and work (and also die) in the home they choose. According to the narration recalled by Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), son of the Priest, his memories are half-truth and half-dream. In that sense, we are experiencing his personal story, and the History of the city, from a place of fact as much as speculation. Bill killed his father and won the battle; sixteen years later Amsterdam comes back after years in an orphanage plotting revenge. Amsterdam gets enough close to his enemy (“taken under the wing of a dragon”), gaining his trust creating an ambiguous bond that sometimes resembles a father-son relationship that becomes a human center for the story. The mentorship of Cutting and the temporary complicity of Amsterdam alongside an evil but sympathetic man raises very Scorsesian questions about individual principles and the purpose behind the violence.

Following Amsterdam’s romantic voice-over narration, the seductive storytelling of GANGS OF NEW YORK is sustained by the reimagination of New York in equal measures of historical facts and myths. Notwithstanding, the clash between gangs differs radically from the noble and immaculate battles that define the epic genre (THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS was released that same year, as an example of this particular tradition). Instead, Scorsese chooses to portray these fights through an exacerbated expressionism distinguished by its cruelty and dirtiness. The rest of the movie maintains an ambivalent attitude between operatic emotions and a critical eye that observes this world devoid of decency, thus building a radical model of epic cinema filtered by Scorsese’s spiritual concerns, which remit what THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) or GOODFELLAS (1990) achieved after a subtle revolt against the conventions of “religious stories” or “gangsters films” promoted by Hollywood. The model fostered by GANGS OF NEW YORK was more influential than has been credited if you think about GAME OF THRONES or any similar epic drama with moral grays and not always clear heroes. This doesn’t mean that the movie contradicts its own genre, neither made a parody of it, though contribute with a psychological and sociological dimension that understands its historical responsibility where the events from any time were never just black-and-white, a simplification of good vs evil war and nothing in-between. To support that intention of veracity in the heart of fiction, many transitions of the film carefully included headlines of newspapers of the era, advertisements, or prints.

If GANGS OF NEW YORK is an overlooked masterpiece usually regarded for its technical aspect (the invigorating Michael Ballhaus’ photography is stellar) or the artistic craft (Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design are exquisite), more underrated has been the novel screenplay written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, nurtured in the tradition of the Great American Novel. The film often follows a controlled cynic and farcical auteurist point of view where some situations are treated seriously and are questioned or ridiculed at the same time. This creates a double effect that allows intellectual reflection as much as primal enjoyment. A clear example of that happens every time a flashy tracking shot occurs, starting on a small event expanding progressively until the revelation of a “big picture” of History suffocating the individual dramas. In one of those, the arrival of Irish immigrants- welcomed by the politicians in the seek of future votes, mocked by the xenophobe Natives- is interpolated with a line of hungry people sign in to join the Army before boarding the same boat where multiple coffins are disembarked. In another scene, you can hear a mournful folk song as part of the soundtrack until the apparition of a homeless singer, revealing herself  as the diegetic source of the song. Whenever you focus the eyes, mostly in the long shots, you will find numerous small actions happening sequentially in the margins of a major event (there’s always embroiled in a fight in every corner of The Five Points). GANGS OF NEW YORK demands an audience that becomes active readers able to recognize the different links between History and the many stories involved, more importantly for American audiences confronted to the least honorable elements of their history and the flaws (and original sins) yet to overcome (xenophobia, racism, propensity for violence,  pride in the illiteracy).

GANGS OF NEW YORK has stunning set-pieces that in any other movie would be the “best scene” (the first gang battle in the snow, the quarrel of two rivals fire brigades debating who is responsible to extinguish the fire, the attack against Bill in the theater, the anniversary ceremony to commemorate Native’s victory, the Election Day, among many) just as intimate moments between the characters sharing tender experiences (Amsterdam and Jenny comparing scars in an erotic moment for both before they fall apart for their discrepancies), even from the more vicious and ruthless (Bill, wrapped in an American flag, tell the story about how he lost his eye at the foot of the bed where Amsterdam is sleeping next to Jenny). This recollection of stories and events, larger than life, and the emotions that enhance it finally accumulate towards a great and spectacular third act where every character, their respective conflicts and disagreements, their hopes and dream at play, and the places they inhabited converge in simultaneous incidents. The Draft Riots of the poor against the rich, the final showdown between Bill and Amsterdam as a deja vu of the first battle, the interrupted escape of Jenny (Cameron Diaz) longing for a promising journey to California and the failure of William Tweed (Jim Broadbent) to maintain order in the city he governs conform a web of interweaving experiences that are rewarding as much as intelligent.

The cultural mosaic of GANGS OF NEW YORK contains a substantial group of supporting characters (Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, Gary Lewis, and Cara Seymour) sometimes equally fascinating than the protagonist trio (Day-Lewis, DiCaprio, and Diaz). In the case of Cameron Diaz, the actress was considered by critics of the time as the weakest part of the film, which is an unfair assessment aroused by the disinterest of many at recognizing her in a departure role after a successful career comprised by comedies or actions flicks. The pickpocket Jenny is one of the most appealing female characters in Scorsese’s movies (a filmmaker generally lauded for his portrayals of male characters) as an independent woman that exploit her beauty and intelligence for the convenience of her own agenda, not determined by the two important men in her life (Amsterdam and Bill).

For DiCaprio, this movie marked his first of many terrific collaborations alongside Scorsese that will carve a path for him to obtain recognition as one of the best actors of his generation and not just a teenager idol absorbed by the fame post-Titanic. He will shine better in other Scorsese movies (THE AVIATOR (2004), THE DEPARTED (2006), THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)), while in this first collaboration DiCaprio functions as a team-player that mobilizes the story and attracted box-office attention. The movie belongs almost entirely to Daniel Day-Lewis, in a career-defining role, embodying Bill The Butcher with a charismatic and dangerous performance that creates one of the greatest villains in cinema history. The complexity of this character swings from the serene behavior in private spaces to the bewildering histrionics of his public apparitions. Bill explains at some point that “the spectacle of fearsome acts” has been a necessity to control people close to him and inspire respect from others. As an actor, Day-Lewis attains this balance of inner life and theatricality that defines Cutting. This performance can be considered the first of a trilogy of “American patriarchs” interpreted by Day-Lewis as a representation of the mythical essence of United States in their darker aspects (Cutting and as a Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson) and the luminous ones (as LINCOLN (2012) in the homonymous biopic directed by Steven Spielberg). THERE WILL BE BLOOD and Day-Lewis are constantly regarded as one of the best movies and performances of the century respectively, but GANGS OF NEW YORK covered first many of its tracks and deserves similar appreciation at least.

Almost twenty years have passed and GANGS OF NEW YORK has not lost an ounce of its cinematic power, acquiring a major sociocultural resonance more than ever if we attend the warnings about how fragile democracy can be and how easy is to fall in a primitive state of violence and savagery. For Scorsese it was the fulfillment of a quixotic enterprise largely dreamed for decades that propelled the third act of his marvelous career as an acclaimed and revered filmmaker as relevant today as it was more than forty years ago. GANGS OF NEW YORK is even more special nowadays for being one of the last successful non-franchise related Hollywood epics since TITANIC (1997), as movies capable to rescue the tradition of classic cinema with modern sensibilities that underscore their respective authorship, sustaining artistic purposes as valid as their commercial aims. For a movie of such characteristics to triumph commercially in years to come, it became a pre-requisite the attachment to a familiar franchise (super-hero blockbusters ordinarily) or to the constraints of genre’s conventions (sci-fi, fantasy). If sometimes GANGS OF NEW YORK seemed wild in storytelling and disjointed in assemblage is because as Priest Vallons advised to his son: “The blood stays on the blade”. Due to its boldness and spontaneity, this is a Scorsesian masterpiece in its own terms pending of a place of honor that has been denied so far. We didn’t know yet but GANGS OF NEW YORK was a farewell for the ambitious and adult big-budget studio film where special effects helped instead of supplant, the scripts tell compelling stories instead of overwhelm with convoluted plot twists, and the passion project of an unrivaled director could saw the light of the day in a big-screen despite all blood and tribulation, and probably as a secret celebration of that.

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