“Gangs of New York”

"Gunsmoke" meets "Planet of the Apes" in Martin Scorsese's overlarge, overcooked epic of 19th century Manhattan. You should see it anyway.

Topics: Movies,

"Gangs of New York"

The world needs more filmmakers with passionate enthusiasms like Martin Scorsese. But it doesn’t need “Gangs of New York.” Imaginative and wholly unbelievable, “Gangs of New York” seems too big for any screen it could possibly be projected onto; it spills and sprawls off the margins, and you can imagine whole panoramic worlds outside the frame, worlds in which extras hired at union wages walk down cobbled streets, pick some pockets, toss back a few drinks — invisible symbols of the movie’s commitment to absolute authenticity.

But at some point you have to stop building a world and start telling a story, and in “Gangs of New York,” Scorsese is so distracted and dazzled by his homemade universe he just can’t seem to hunker down. The narrative is gangly and unfocused even though, naturally, the story is what drew him to make the picture in the first place: According to lore, Scorsese picked up “Gangs of New York,” Herbert Asbury’s 1928 chronicle of old New York, while he was housesitting in 1970 and devoured it in practically one day. He loved the way Asbury captured the history and the aura of the young city, and particularly the antics of its underworld criminals. It was a story not just of New York, but of America’s wild beginnings.

By now the story behind the making of “Gangs of New York” — the delays and the battles, the bickering and tinkering — has become folklore itself. And you do have to wonder: What might happen to a man who clings to a book for 30 years, hoping to make it into a movie? Would it be all that surprising if his tenacity were to fuse into petrified obsessiveness? And couldn’t simple ambition evolve into a kind of completist frenzy, an intricate maze with no clear way out?

Up to a point, you have to have some sympathy for Scorsese and his outlandish vision. But who knows exactly why “Gangs of New York” turned out as it did? This faux history lesson, which opens in the New York of 1846 and hopscotches neatly to 1863, is more oppressive than exhilarating. It’s weighed down by its massive, dusty-bright sets — built completely, Mad King Ludwig style, at Cinecittà in Rome — and by its hordes of old New Yorkers, going about their business of knife sharpening, gambling and petty thievery while swaddled in vaguely futuristic garb. (At first I couldn’t be sure if the clothing, designed by costume genius Sandy Powell, was brilliant or just jarringly odd, but I eventually settled on the former — her stovepipe hats and loopy mix of prints register as a kind of rocket-ship Victoriana.)

The look of “Gangs of New York” is impressive, and yet it makes only the most oblique kind of sense. Scorsese’s old New York doesn’t look much like what we’ve seen in photographs of the era, but then, he never set out for textbook authenticity. He once said he was going for a western-on-Mars vibe, but what he gets is more like “Gunsmoke” meets “Planet of the Apes.” Many of the movie’s impoverished immigrants are stationed in a decrepit tenement with the front cut away, dollhouse-style. The interior is all raw wood and dusty caverns, the sort of thing you might see in an old “Star Trek” episode about a distant planet populated by oppressed masses whose tyrannical rulers prevent them from inventing things like running water and light bulbs.

But you have to say this much for Scorsese’s decrepit magic kingdom: It sure is big. I think it’s entirely possible to be so flummoxed by the look of “Gangs of New York” (as even Scorsese himself seems to be) that you forget to pay attention to the story altogether — the movie was shot by Michael Ballhaus with a magisterial authority, as if the camera can’t believe what it’s seeing any more than we can. But eventually we’re forced to wrestle with the tale Scorsese is hell-bent on telling, and with his notions of American identity as a crusty prize born of bloodshed.

“Gangs of New York” opens with a battle, or rather, with the vision of a ragtag group of Irish immigrants readying themselves for battle, sharpening their crude weapons and chomping with fierce determination on consecrated bread. They’re called the Dead Rabbits — Ye shall know them by the droopy pelts swinging from the tips of their spears — and they’re led by Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon, a noble warrior type who stands straight and tall as a slender oak.

But not quite as straight and tall as William Cutting, also known as Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the leader of the rival “Native Americans,” longtime New Yorkers of largely Anglo descent who resent the mere presence of the Irish interlopers on their turf, a tough section of lower Manhattan known as the Five Points. It’s 1846 and, for reasons that are never quite explained (we’re supposed to chalk it up to mere territorial pissing), the two groups go at each other with a vengeance in a bloody brawl. Ears are chewed off; pikes are jabbed into sternums.

Finally, Bill, his pate encased inexplicably in a fitted leather aviator cap (it’s like a Goth version of the things you see on the Christ child in old Flemish paintings), finally kills Priest in full view of Priest’s young son, who we know will grow up to be stalwart Leonardo DiCaprio. After spending some 16 years in an orphanage, he will reappear on the scene, using the name Amsterdam to disguise his identity. He will wreak vengeance on Bill, but not before the two forge a complicated and doomed father-son relationship.

By 1863, the Dead Rabbits have been long disbanded, and Bill the Butcher rules the Five Points. Much of the rest of New York is a swirling mass of thievery and corruption, both official and otherwise; Boss Tweed (the amusingly hearty Jim Broadbent) steps into the action now and then, and the movie culminates in a major citywide eruption fueled partly by the (fictional) scuffle between the resurrected Dead Rabbits and the nativists and the (real-life) Civil War draft riots of 1863, in which enraged, destitute, frustrated citizens took arms against the authorities.

Scorsese tries to conjoin the fight between the Rabbits and the nativists with the draft riots in a way that doesn’t make sense: It’s easy to intuit that the draft laws would have greatly affected impoverished Irish immigrants (it was possible to avoid the draft by paying the sum of $300, a prohibitively high price for just about any newcomer). But beyond that, it simply looks as if Scorsese is seeking an excuse to stage an even bigger, nastier brawl than the one he opened the movie with. He and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan (underworld historian Luc Sante also served as a consultant on the picture) set themselves up as folk-tale-telling historians, intent on telling a story that feels true, even if whole patches of it are sheer invention.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, just as there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Bill the Butcher is based on a real character, but one who died in 1855, before the main action of “Gangs” takes place. Filmmakers and storytellers of all stripes take liberties like that all the time. But Scorsese’s romanticized vision of gang warfare as a prelude to melting-pot patriotism is harder to buy. People with differences have always fought, and will continue to do so; sometimes the result is a kind of patched-up harmony, and sometimes there’s no result at all other than more fighting.

But Scorsese, gleefully moving his toy-soldier Jets and Sharks around on the game board, is too intent on turning a bunch of scrappy thugs into democratic heroes — albeit unfocused ones. To his credit, he’s more interested in well-sharpened characters than ideas. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what his ideas are. We connect with the gang leaders’ sense of honor and dignity: Bill the Butcher reveres Priest, the man he killed so brutally, simply because he had the guts to put his life down for what he believed in. But where has respect for your enemies really gotten you if all you’re after is to be the kid with the most toys and the most power, as Bill has become? Bill the Butcher isn’t exactly a man of vision (though he is pretty handy with a meat cleaver, putting it to good use on both humans and pigs). He’s a bigot, and Scorsese makes that clear. Yet we’re supposed to recognize him as a symbol of good old-fashioned American stick-to-itiveness. Because it doesn’t matter what you stand for, as long as you stick to it.

There are more problems: Relationships aren’t as fully fleshed out as they should be. You can see the deep daddy-son bond flowering tentatively between Bill and Amsterdam, but it still seems forced rather than felt, an emotional construct that has to happen to move the action forward. And it’s not nearly as interesting as the relationship between Bill and Priest — a grudging respect between feral brothers in the spirit — which takes up much, much less of the movie.

Characters come and go, introduced for reasons that you think will be explained later but never quite are, forlorn Chekhovian guns aching to be fired. John C. Reilly is a scrappy Rabbit in 1846, and by 1863 he has sold out to the folks in power to become a cop. This transformation could have been interesting if it had been even halfway explored, but Reilly’s character seems to exist just so Scorsese can kill him off to make a point. And I wanted more of David Hemmings, as the figurehead of New York’s über-aristocratic Schermerhorn family, and his fabulous eyebrows (they’re peaks of fur teased up and out like Alpine ski jumps). But he seems to be present in the story only for his, well, eyebrows.

In fact, the best actors in “Gangs of New York” — among them Brendan Gleeson, as a brassy, ballsy barber-turned-politician — have the least to do. With the exception of Cameron Diaz, who holds tight as a saucy, scrappy pickpocket (and Amsterdam’s love interest), most of the performers seem dwarfed by the wilderness of scenery. DiCaprio stumbles through the movie like a lost boy, occasionally frowning to signify his intense need for retribution and acceptance from Bill, but otherwise giving us nothing to read in his character.

And although Day-Lewis’ performance has already won awards from several critics’ groups, I confess that it baffled me — and he’s an actor whose work I have loved almost without qualification. Day-Lewis is visually quite grand, almost like a circus figure — Powell has dressed him in slim waistcoats and long checkered trousers that make him look like a stilt walker. And I guess you could argue that his curlicue handlebar mustache gives him an air of grand, comic-book heroism.

But does he have to look so much like the guy on the pizza box? Day-Lewis seems to intentionally overplay Bill, sending him up the flagpole with a wink and a flourish. He shows an excellent aptitude for twinkling with his one good eye. (The other one is glass, with an iris shaped like a super-symbolic flying eagle — leave it to Scorsese to give a character a fake eye that’s as carefully crafted as a Milanese paperweight.)

Day-Lewis enunciates his lines in a strange Noo Yawk accent thick with East River mud; his weird diction may have some historical significance or it may be a creative invention. But either way, even in his biggest and most serious scenes, his choices feel mannered and goofy, as if he felt it was his responsibility to keep the whole movie whirling like a pie plate on a stick.

It must be very difficult, if not impossible, for an actor to have a sense of the scale of a movie while he’s actually working on it. Could it be that Day-Lewis knew intuitively that his performance, and his character, had to be jumbo-sized to stand up to Scorsese’s giant landscape?

But the final and biggest question is one that doesn’t have a clear answer: Why was Scorsese driven to make such a gigantic movie in the first place? Scorsese has made big movies before, but they were a different sort of epic: “The Last Temptation of Christ” was the work of a man who loves stories and the pageantry of religion (possibly in that order), and also of one who realizes that to deprive any man, even Jesus Christ, of his humanity is the gravest offense. And “Kundun,” which, for my money, is Scorsese’s best and most beautiful picture, wasn’t just a movie about Buddhism — it was a Buddhist movie, infused with calm from the inside out.

“Gangs of New York” is a different kind of religious movie for Scorsese. He is still, and always will be, in thrall to embroidered tall tales, to bloody battles fought with a sense of purpose, to characters who live and act as if they know they’re destined to become legends. It’s tempting to conclude that Scorsese made “Gangs of New York” so outsized simply because he’s a megalomaniac. But I don’t see evidence of that at all. Ungainly and ineffectual as “Gangs of New York” is, I don’t think you can watch it and fail to see that Scorsese longs for a grandness that eludes his reach.

Yet I believe he wants that grandness more for the glory of movies themselves as an art form, and less for himself. He wants movies so big he can climb inside them; he actually prefers to be smaller in comparison, because he knows that there are few greater pleasures of movie going than to be overwhelmed and awed. A misguided Jonah of modern filmmaking, he yearns to be swallowed up by scale. Perhaps he never thought his clumsy giant would run off without him.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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