Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York opens with an enormous closeup of a pair of eyes. It’s a clammy, intrusive shot, and its stillness and forced intimacy serve as set up for the surprising sweep of the next few minutes, as the camera hurls past dozens of men preparing their weapons before marching into a street fight. The film takes its structure and achieves its impact from this strategy of moving from the smallest details to grand tableaus. Playing out national political struggles through a simple tale of vengeance, it earns its resonance by getting the details of its smaller conflict exactly right.
The street fight pits gangs of recent Irish immigrants against the second generation gangs who control the Five Points slum in 1846 New York. Staged in homage to the opening of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the fight is a protracted slow motion bloodbath seen through the eyes of the wary little boys who stand at the sidelines and watch the snow turn to pink muck as their fathers slash and bludgeon one another. It’s a ferocious scene, undercut by a wildly anachronistic score that threatens to turn the battle into a rock video that will never see MTV. (This scene and the closing credits aside, Howard Shore’s evocative score consists mainly of reels and Celtic ballads.)
The film takes up again fifteen years later, when one of those boys (Leonardo DeCaprio) leaves the Hellgate reformatory. He returns to a Five Points that’s moved beyond simple savagery to a more complex, fractious rule by thuggery. Boss Tweed’s Tamany Hall controls the government, with Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) as muscle. The Butcher is a psychopath and a fierce Nativist, a man who hates the immigrants pouring in by the tens of thousands each week even more than he despises the Union that drafts the poor to die in the civil war.
Scorsese made his reputation as a poet of urban squalor. The New York City of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver throbs with violence waiting to erupt, too many people thrust into dangerous proximity fighting for their territory. If anything, his Five Points is worse, a dank hole teeming with hordes of newcomers who arrive with their old hatreds intact, no common language and no hope of success outside of crime. It makes a fascinating comparison with the Little Italy sequences of The Godfather II. However violent, Coppola’s world was nostalgic, with paternal crime lords providing order and continuity – Italy recreated in the new world – for their immigrant constituents. It’s impossible to imagine anyone pining for the murderous cesspool Scorsese recreates here.
The performances are scaled large, to fit the canvas. Day-Lewis revels in the chance to play a grotesque, and his delight in the outsized gestures and hammy oration makes his villain the most involving character. (He’s a distant cousin to Joe Pesci’s clownish goon in Goodfellas.) The actors who risk looking silly by playing their characters as broad archetypes fare better than those locked into less flamboyant portrayals: Jim Broadbent’s Boss Tweed, Cameron Diaz’ Jenny and Gary Lewis’ McGloin smother the quiet, watchful DiCaprio. (When, in a clinch, Diaz threatens to bite him, one expects him to run off and tattle to his Mommy.)
Scattered, overblown, too impressed with its own monumentality, the film threatens to trip over its own portentousness time and again, only to be righted by the assurance and sheer audacity of the storytelling. There’s a primordial quality to the film, where the birth pangs of modern urbanity are played out with the trappings of Grand Opera: blood vengeance, obsessive ritual (objects handed down from father to son or buried and dug up again) and elemental passions erupting into violent retribution. It makes for a weirdly dissonant film.
Scorsese is aiming high here, self-consciously attempting an American epic that’s brought home with a closing montage that’s as moving as it is shamelessly corny. He echoes the Godfather films (the most obvious influence), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, even D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley. There are nods to the ritualistic dances in John Ford’s calvary films and Akira Kurosawa’s hazy rain battles and spurting blood. There’s even a stunning set piece cribbed from Jerry Lewis by way of Godard-Gorin’s Tout va Bien. It’s too contradictory and confused a work to challenge the Godfather II as the definitive study of the birth of modern America, but it hits its mark often enough – there are set pieces and stray images that are within shouting distance of Coppola – to be Scorsese’s best fiction film since Goodfellas.