Gangs of New York is a sweeping story of love and life and death amidst the violence of the early days of New York City, the gateway to the west for the hordes of immigrants from Ireland and Europe. Even after cutting his movie by an hour, director Martin Scorsese has an epic of almost three hours. As in most of his movies, Scorsese taps many religious and Catholic themes, but focuses on revenge here to ask the question, are hatred and vengeance powerful enough forces to sustain a man's life?
The movie opens with Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) shaving in preparation for a major gang battle. When he cuts himself with his open razor, he tells his young son, Amsterdam, "The blood stays on the blade. One day you'll understand." This is a preface for what will come in this very bloody and violent film. And by the end, we understand the implications of the blood on the razor.
Facing off against Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his gang of "Natives," Priest Vallon takes his gang of Irish immigrants into battle, only to die at the hands of Bill as the Irish lose the fight and ownership of the 5 Points, a cruel and crime-infested ghetto. The boy Amsterdam sees his father die and escapes.
Some years later, Amsterdam returns to the 5 Points as a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose "education" has been in a brutal reform school. He is filled with hatred for Bill and is looking for revenge. As he falls in with a group of Irish boys, he manages to meet Bill and somehow gain his approval, becoming almost an apprentice of his. As side-kick, he is "sleeping with the enemy" who does not know his true identity. Along the way, he meets, befriends and falls in love with Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a street-wise but scarred pick-pocket.
After the prolog, the movie is set in 1863, when the Civil War is extolling a high price within the Union. With the caskets of dead soldiers returning to the NYC harbor at night, the immigrants arriving during the day are urged to become soldiers, even immediately after becoming citizens. Yet prejudice is rampant, then as now. Where some, such as the corrupt politician "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) see America's future ("That's the building of our country right there, Mr Cutting. Americans aborning.") others, like Bill, see America's threat ("I don't see no Americans. I see trespassers.").
Prejudice is a key theme throughout this movie, as it takes the form of national prejudice (Americans vs immigrants) as well as racial prejudice (whites vs blacks). The gangs of New York are formed to provide protection for the groups of people who naturally gravitate together. As Irishman McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) says, " That war [of prejudice] is a thousand years old and more. We never expected it to follow us here. It didn't. It was waiting for us when we landed." Prejudice is inescapable.
Although the American Declaration of Independence espouses "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," the sinfulness of the human heart ensures that all men are selfish and self-centered. This inherent human condition ensures that throughout history prejudice has raised its ugly head, and will continue to do so in one form or another. The chief solution is found in Jesus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). In choosing to follow Jesus, we become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:21) whose internal character is changed. We are truly equal in Christ. Prejudice has no place in the hearts of Christ's followers.
If prejudice is the blood running through the veins of this film, revenge is its heart. When Amsterdam prepares to kill Bill, he wants to do it in a public way, where everyone can see it and understand that this is an act of vengeance. But his friend betrays him in a Judas-like manner, so that Bill is ready. When it happens, the tables are turned, and Amsterdam becomes the one caught in the trap. Yet, as Priest Vallon spared Bill's life once before, causing Bill to lose an eye, Bill chooses to spare Amsterdam's life: "He ain't earned a death! He ain't a death at my hands! No, he'll walk amongst you marked with shame, a freak." He scars him but frees him, leaving him a monster, even more consumed by hatred.
Despite the immigrants who sign-up, there is still a lack of numbers and the draft is enacted. Only the rich can escape, since a conscript could buy his way out of the army for a price of $300. But it is a price that most could not afford. When the draft becomes real and names are drawn, the tinder-box of New York is sparked and anti-draft riots occur. Amidst the worst riots in the nation's history, the mob torches the town, killing anyone who stood in its way.
Set against this violence, the final gang battle is waged. The again-returned Amsterdam has united all the immigrant gangs of New York against Bill and the Natives. In a scene that reprises the prolog, the gangs face one another at 5 Points. But this time, the Union army is involved as are the war-ships on the water. Quelling the mob, hindering the gang-battle, the gunfire and cannon-fire cause a smoke and haze that makes the scene surreal. At the climax, it is Amsterdam vs the Butcher.
Gangs of New York is a powerful film with strong acting. Daniel Day-Lewis is larger than life in the central role of Bill the Butcher that sees him have a scene with every main character in the movie. Having won one Oscar for his role in My Left Foot, he was worthily nominated here but lost to Adrien Brody (for his role in The Pianist), although he picked up numerous trophies for this role elsewhere (and then won his second Oscar last year for There Will be Blood). Diaz and DiCaprio, normally pretty actors without much substance, show depth not often seen in their roles. Surrounded by a deep cast of well-known faces (Broadbent, Neeson, John C Reilly, Gleeson, etc), Scorsese crafts an homage to his beloved New York.
But Gangs of New York is not perfect. It is overlong, with too many characters and too graphic in its violence. More than this, its answer to its fundamental question is that revenge and hatred will sustain a man, which is deeply unsatisfying ethically. Revenge is costly. It is an emotion that does not sustain life, it sucks the life and the love out of a person, turning them into a bitter shell.
As Amsterdam confesses his true identity to Jenny, she realizes that his hatred will consume him, and she gives him a choice -- his "quest" or his love. And his choice is predetermined by his desire for vengeance, by his hatred, not by his love. He loses his new love because he has to kill his enemy. Revenge can only be conquered by forgiveness. Hatred can only be conquered by love. When it comes to battles and wars, love is the more powerful, even most powerful, force in the world, and the weapon it wields is forgiveness. Each one of us has this weapon, should we choose to use it.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs