Last night, the next 2002 Best Picture nominee was popped into the DVD drive...
Gangs of New York
Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson
New York, 1846. In the slum known as Five Points, two rival gangs prepare for a territorial battle. On one side are the American-born "Natives", led by Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis), nicknamed The Butcher for two reasons - one, he is particularly fierce when it comes to murder, and two, he is actually a butcher. Challenging the Natives is the gang of Irish immigrants called the "Dead Rabbits", led by Priest Vallon (Neeson), who is not actually a priest. The two groups viciously murder each other, culminating in Cutting's fatal stabbing of Vallon, a grisly sight witnessed by the eyes of Vallon's young son Amsterdam, who is then shipped off to an orphanage.
Sixteen years later, Amsterdam (DiCaprio), now a grown man, returns to the Five Points with vengeance on his mind and a genetically convenient change in appearance, just enough so as to make him unrecognisable to Cutting. With the help of old friend Johnny (Thomas), Amsterdam wheedles his way into Cutting's inner circle, gaining his trust and falling for one of his playthings, Jenny (Diaz). As he waits for the opportune moment to strike, the country meanwhile is in the midst of the Civil War and New York City comes closer and closer to civil unrest due to President Lincoln's new military draft, disliked by the poor immigrant population.
The opening pre-battle scenes of Gangs of New York are intensely suspenseful as they segue into a battle sequence that has all the elements of a good grunge music video. In fact, Scorsese uses a somewhat stylised technique throughout. There is a dream-like quality that pervades the picture, chiefly due to the starkly interesting design which consists primarily of browns and greys punctuated with well-placed splashes of colour. For instance, in battle, the "Natives" are all dressed in bland earth tones with a strong blue ribbon somewhere on their person. The "Dead Rabbits" are similarly attired but with red stripes featuring on their clothing. It's almost like Survivor.
Most of the publicity material for the film seems to indicate that this is a story about the birth of America, with specific regard to its violent in-fighting. Oddly, though, I felt the personal stories of the main characters were far more substantial. So much so that the idea of national legacy hardly occurred to me. Granted, there is great reference to the Civil War and to immigrants and to class struggles. Plus, the film's final images are of the Lower Manhattan skyline as it appeared through the years, dissolving chronologically from 1862 through to present day. If that weren't blatant enough, the closing credits feature a U2 song called "The Hands That Built America", followed by sound effects of modern day New York, car horns and sirens blazing. Nonetheless, the more intimate themes of personal vengeance and loyalty gained a far deeper hold on me. Sorry, Marty.
Gangs of New York also marks the first in a recent string of collaborations between Scorsese and DiCaprio, a highly successful pairing considering three of their four outings have garnered Best Picture nominations. The fourth, Shutter Island, will be eligible for next year's Oscars and could very well make it a perfect score. Scorsese's previous favourite lead actor, Robert De Niro - who, incidentally, has also appeared in three Best Picture-nominated Scorsese films - has no reason to feel dismissed, though. To some extent, he still has a presence in this film in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis (pictured) who appears to be doing an homage to the Taxi Driver star. Imagine Robert De Niro playing Tony Soprano. That's the sensation one gets when watching Day-Lewis portray Bill Cutting, squinty eyes and all.
DiCaprio is an often underrated actor due to his pretty boy persona, which I've never quite understood, considering the majority of his roles are actually quite gritty. Here, he is affecting yet restrained, especially alongside Day-Lewis' extravagant portrayal. Cameron Diaz finds her own, avoiding her regular giggly characterisation. The rest of the principal cast also deliver strong performances, including the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson, and two of my favourites, Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly. And keep an eye out for a cameo from Scorsese himself, appearing very briefly as an upper class patriarch.