Gangs of New York
Almost from the beginning of his career, now nearing its fortieth year, Martin Scorsese has put a stamp on his films that makes them recognizable more as facets of himself than as stories about other people. No matter the genre - and he has made comedies, mysteries, documentaries, expansive epics and intimate period pieces - what we see in the theatre is Scorsese himself. It's as though there is a kind of polarizing filter over the screen, that only permits us to see the movie as a part of himself and his view of life, and when it is turned another way the screen goes blank. There is no objective reality to his films, no authorial distancing. Every film is another view of life as seen by this quintessential New York Italian Catholic. He cannot escape his fate, nor can his movies break free. If ever there was an auteur, it is Scorsese, and we see it exemplified in his new film "Gangs of New York."
"Gangs of New York" is an enormous project of a film, set in the mid-nineteenth century in a slum corner of Manhattan near the East River. A huge set - a square mile, we are told - was built at Cinecitta in Rome, for Scorsese's use in telling his tale. And the tale is about an immigrant Irish Catholic boy who sees his father killed in a fight at the little section called the Five Corners. His killer is Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), who leads a gang of 'Nativists' (read Protestants) against the newly arrived Irish Catholics. The boy is sent to be raised in an institution, and comes out years later as an adult, Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), with the goal of revenging his father and killing Bill.
He insinuates himself into Bill's gang and becomes part of Bill's close circle, which includes Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the head of the corrupt Tammany Hall political club. And he finds the pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz) as his love.
Everything is in place for a powerful drama of relationships (Jenny was Bill's ward and he was her first lover), revenge (Amsterdam's intended murder of Bill), corrupt politics (Tammany) and, the climactic event of the film, the Civil War and the draft riots of 1863, in which much of the city was burned and many died.
All of which is appropriate and believable, but here is where Scorsese steps out ahead of his film and turns it into a kind of simplistic lesson in Catholicism and the virtues of religion. As the final confrontation looms closer and closer, the spiritual content of the film grows to enormous size. It does nothing for the drama or the people inhabiting the film, and merely prolongs an already slow setup toward a predictable ending.
I was not privileged to witness the legendary battles between producer Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax paid for the film, and Scorsese as the director. But I can imagine what Weinstein said, and I have to agree with him. This film is seriously overblown, based on too thin a story to sustain itself, with one-dimensional characters asked to carry it along for two hours and forty-five minutes. The film is filled with incident but not with meaning. And although the recreated section of New York is, I'm sure, accurate to the period, it has the artificial look of a Hollywood back lot. Things are just a little too cramped, there are no vistas (of course; we would see the Roman hills) because every street ends in a building that stops the view. In fact, an awful lot of time is spent down inside dungeon-like cellars.
The performances are good. Diaz once again shows her range as an actor; she is alternately sexy, witty, intelligent, and in love. Day-Lewis creates a subtle, textured portrait of a man who was once a hero and is now a villain. DiCaprio is an interesting study for a critic. As an adolescent and then as a young hero (of "Titanic") he had a brilliant wildness to him that commanded the screen. Now, though, his face and voice seem out of focus, somehow light and fuzzy and indistinct. He cannot sustain the fire needed to act the avenging angel in this film, and I wonder at his future career in serious movies.