Film Review Archive


The Gangs of N.Y.
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

This week, the Film Gang does something unusual by reviewing the same movie twice. Shot entirely in the Italian studios of Cinecittà, theMartin Scorsese film is a spectacular theatrical production of epic proportions that tells a story of early inter-ethnic gang warfare in 19th-cebntury New York City.

Liam Neeson is the Irish Catholic immigrant priest who leads his "dead rabbit" gang against the American-born Natives, lead by Daniel Day-Lewis (ironically, another Irishman), as Bill "the Butcher" Cutting. Knives are, indeed, the weapons of choice, along with a host of homely domestic and agricultural tools. The Butcher triumphs, and Vallon's son, who witnesses the battle, is whisked off to reform school, where he emerges 16 years later as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) to seek revenge. Bill has completely taken over the West Village slums called Five Points, with the help of politician William 'Boss" tweed, played by Jim Broadbent. It is now the Civil War and Irish immigrants pour off the boats only to be enfranchised, signed up, uniformed and shipped down south to fight. The Natives, still touting their racist and xenophobic lines, seem to have incorporated some of the Irish Catholics, thus demonstrating that racial and ethnic differences are often only ideological pretexts for drawing battle lines, becoming fuzzy and mobile as opportunism dictates . . . until something or someone comes along to redraw the boundaries.

Scorsese takes some liberties with American history: the peak of Irish immigration is made to coincide with the Civil War, while the nativist movement continues farther into the century than it actually did. But this is not realism, naturalism, or even history: it's political allegory couched in the eloquent and extravagant language of melodrama and the family romance: Amsterdam is the son Bill never had, who conspires nevertheless to kill him and covets the woman-Jenny, played by Cameron Diaz-who "belongs" to Bill. This is a different kind of "birth of a nation," one that transposes our current conflicts to an earlier time to underscore the bloody, repetitive, cycles of racism, political corruption, and state repression that both found and continue to characterize the nation.

One of the most brilliant moves the movie makes in its seemingly broad-stroke but actually quite subtle analysis is to juxtapose the final showdown between Amsterdam and Bill with the draft riots of 1863, where the working masses and the lumpen go uptown on a rampage against the state that conscripts them. However much we want to applaud their resistance, we hear voice-over news reports of-and see-the mobs lynching black men on the streets, even as they storm the homes of the nouveau urban aristocracy. Meanwhile, DiCaprio's voice-over comments on their own anachronistic vision of a world where local feudal lords defend their turf, while capitalists and politicians sit back and watch one-half of the poor kill the other half. And, finally, when it all gets out of control, the state, with its superior technology and might, turns its high-powered weaponry on the people of New York.

This is a pessimistic vision of the genealogy of a city that, Scorsese suggests, has been almost completely forgotten. Instead we like to make our gangsters exceptional and not-quite-white, like Tony Soprano, and our leaders preoccupied with external enemies rather than the internal threats posed by the disenchanted masses. Meanwhile, this story is told in spectacular Baz Luhrmannesque style and quotes the great American urban sagas of film and history, from West Side Story to the LA rebellion, and including the director's own previous visions of N.Y. It's a magnificent production; I recommend it highly. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.