Gangs of New York is the epic, self-destructive companion piece to Who Shot Liberty Valance. It posits that one need not have traveled out west to find romantic lawlessness, and that one could not find the answers to a more productive society back east. It is also proof that Martin Scorsese can make masterful work no matter the circumstances. Gangs of New York is his most artistically compromised picture, trimmed down even at its 167-minute length from a reported five-hour cut and commercialized in a futile attempt to make the film into some sort of hit. Yet it remains his most personal, above perhaps his erstwhile passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, the ultimate paean to Marty's beloved hometown and an exorcism of his hangups.
The impositions placed upon the film by Miramax hindered this vision, yet perhaps they fueled the more bombastic visual choices that serve Scorsese's deconstruction of his career. Besides, the marketing of the film provides for a misdirection Scorsese attempts with the film itself, goading the audience into identifying Amsterdam, the underdog character who enjoys a romance and narrates the picture, played by an actor still known for being a teenage heartthrob (Leonardo DiCaprio), as the protagonist. He is not.
The real crux of the story, and the personification of the choices made by the film's director, is William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). He symbolizes the dying New York, at once Liberty Valance and Tom Doniphon. He's a bigot and a ruthless killer, but he has a sense of honor. So do many villains, of course, but Gangs of New York is about the transition in New York's history, not from anomie into civilization but the loss of the "nobility" of violence. Bill is not the symbol standing in the way of progress; he is the last of a dying breed.
Day-Lewis' performance here has been eclipsed by his work in There Will Be Blood, and Daniel Plainview is indeed a testament to the actor's ability to captivate an audience even with a character diametrically opposed to identification or empathy. Yet William Cutting has an emotional complexity that runs deeper even than Day-Lewis' earlier Christy Brown. When he kills the father of DiCaprio's character, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), in a street battle at the start, Cutting refuses to allow any of his gang, the Natives, to spoil the body. "He'll cross over whole," Bill declares, despite his vicious hatred of the Irish Catholicism Vallon represents. For Bill, why he's fighting someone is less important than how those enemies conduct themselves. In a quietly piercing scene, Bill confides in the adult Amsterdam, whom Bill accepts without learning his true identity. Draped in an American flag, Bill condenses his power, the power of anyone who holds it, into fear and the ability to manipulate it. He tells the boy about Vallon, what a great man he was; in one skirmish, Amsterdam's father got the best of ol' Bill and nearly killed him, sparing his foe's life only to force him to live with the shame. Bill notes that he cut out one of his own eyes because he could not look at Vallon.
Like the film, Bill is visually outlandish, absurd even. He routinely sports a red coat as if in a Nicholas Ray period piece, complete with pants that manage to be even longer than Day-Lewis' lanky frame can allow. It's the sort of get-up that sticks out even in a period picture: here is a man who doesn't need to care what others think. It's funny, then, that Bill should reflect Scorsese's aesthetic, given the issues he suffered, even as a universally acknowledge master, at Miramax's hand.
Scorsese's direction is without question the loosest in his oeuvre, or at the very least since Mean Streets threw the director far ahead of the minor accomplishments of his first two features. The opening gang fight, set to anachronistic music and even edited as if a submission to MTV, sets the tone for the film's structure as it draws a line in the sand separating those willing to play along in Marty's meticulously recreated sandbox from those expecting a more conventional movie. Yet Scorsese's direction tests the patience even of the loyal: scenes jut about as if someone unleashed a wild chimp into Thelma Schoonmaker's editing suite and the director simply trusted that his longtime collaborator knew what she was doing when he got the results back. Sudden transitions, awkward breaks, unnecessary cutaways in the middle of an action for a reaction shot or something else to break the scene: all of these issues exist in the film, the result of both the trimming and whatever held Scorsese and Schoonmaker's fancy.
Yet this seeming clumsiness allows the director to break entirely from the tropes that bind the genre. Scorsese worked within them for his superb The Age of Innocence but gave the characters an emotional resonance so many of these pictures chase but never obtain. Gangs, however, belongs firmly with his gangster pictures. Indeed, he casts all of the characters, be they actual gang members, policemen, whores or politicians, as gangsters. The women seduce and take from the men, who take from others to cover their losses, before giving their cut to corrupt coppers and bosses like Bill, who use the money to pocket politicians. It's far too tangled a web to be called a "vicious cycle."
Scorsese films these characters with the same passion he afforded to his earlier films, the ones that mixed character with aesthetic to make everything more visceral, more felt. He lost himself in the jumble of The Departed, but here Marty manages to convey the states of mind of both lead characters. He charts both Amsterdam's rash bravery and the loathing he feels for himself and his self-doubt as well as Bill's sadness at the "rising of the tide" that will wash away everything Bill values. The two characters (and moods) play off each other, Bill's nobility and paternal treatment of Amsterdam compounds the boy's feelings of guilt for not avenging his father, and when Amsterdam finally does make his move, in a craven attempt to get the jump on the Butcher, Bill's feelings toward the changing world are confirmed: Amsterdam is not an evil man, and certainly not a villain in the same way that Bill isn't, but he represents the shift of gangsterism from something done out in the open with a set of rules to a world governed by backstabbing, literal and figurative.
Because Scorsese somehow taps into two mindsets at once through his disjointed style, everything is magnified. The sets, painstakingly crafted in Rome, are massive and establishing -- it's a telling contrast of convictions that George Lucas, upon visiting his old friend during production, remarked, "Sets like that can be done with computers now." Like the sets, the jargon is so accurate that even the characters seem to have no idea what the idioms mean and need many translated. The story is Shakespearean, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a big Irish mercenary who once fought for Vallon, even says so when he sees Amsterdam save Bill from assassination. Later, Amsterdam kills the crooked cop Jack (John C. Reilly, the best of the supporting cast) in a scene that recalls Hamlet stabbing Polonius through the arras. Too, the curtain that Jack yanks down in his death throes reveals a comically outsized cross, at once a reminder of the guilt that drives Amsterdam to avenge his father and Scorsese's pointed jab at himself for redirecting the Catholicism in his films squarely on the guilt that he's still exploring in this film.
The film's amplified visuals reach their apex with the climax, a thunderous vision of the Draft Riots that grows so huge that even an elephant roams the street at one point. Gangs of New York, which halted post-production for a time in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is about not fighting wars that are not yours to fight. Amsterdam spins his wheels for most of the film because his subconscious recognizes that Bill's conflict with the Vallons ended with his father's death, yet he presses on because he feels the need for vengeance. Many of the Irish immigrants who arrive in America are the first to be conscripted in the new draft, and Scorsese overlaps a scene of a batch of soldiers being shipped off on one of the same boats that brings home a hold full of coffins with every docking with an Irish ballad that mourns the state of the immigrants, forced to flee starvation only to find themselves forced into someone else's war. Ironically, the one war worth fighting, the war to preserve the union, is met with indifference, then aggression from the New Yorkers who see themselves as their own entity. Thus, the greatest city in the Union is reduced to what might look no different than a bombed Confederate city, to be rebuilt as a part of the Union through the same backhanded procedures that returned the South to the fold. Scorsese isn't asking us to keep quiet and accept violence against us, but he also asks that we stop and think before fighting, and as such Gangs of New York becomes not only a companion to John Ford but Bruce Springsteen, specifically his own post-9/11 triumph, The Rising.
In the slaughter and smoky haze of the riots, Amsterdam and Bill settle their score. This is the last chance Bill will have to die "a true American," and he takes it, killed honorably by Amsterdam rather than face the world he sees on the horizon, even through the massive cloud kicked up by the shelling. Note that, at the end of the film, Bill, not Amsterdam, rests in the grave next to Vallon's, and as Scorsese suddenly jumps through history to the present (well, just before it, as he leaves the World Trade Center intact), we see time forgetting the men who helped shape the city, and the fact that the movie is about those who created and not destroyed is why the Towers remain. "The appearance of the law must be upheld," Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) told Bill early in the film, "especially when it's being broken." That dishonesty stuck in Bill's craw, and he later tells Tweed, "You can build your filthy world without me." Thus, he wouldn't feel so bad about being covered up by the vines, forgotten by the world he laid the foundation for -- as the tagline reminds us, "America was born in the streets -- and we shouldn't pity him either, not simply because of his violent acts but because obscurity is far nobler than cheap veneration.