Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly
Subjugation of outsiders is apparently as American as fireworks on the 4th of July. No matter what you do to get people to stop, it will never cease to happen. From our earliest days to today, it’s in the fabric of our nation and Gangs of New York highlights when this initially happened to folks coming from Ireland to start fresh in New York City only to be met by some rough opposition by a very racist and xenophobic ruling class.
1846 New York met at the center of the Five Points, considered a slum run by different gangs. With his father passing at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), young Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) has grown up and tries to find his place in this environment while trying to get revenge as well.
After a run like no other with Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese was ready for a new protege to be the center of his films and with this feature came his first work with Leonardo DiCaprio. The two are now inseparable with how they have elevated each other’s careers and it all started with Gangs of New York. A film where DiCaprio began to break the pretty boy mold he had developed and received the opportunity to act opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in a Scorsese picture. The opportunity of a lifetime and DiCaprio delivers.
As a whole, Gangs of New York has great ambition in telling the beginning of this vibrant city even in the way the film concludes by displaying the change to the time the film was released. The city has been the center of this country for most of its existence and Scorsese seeks to capture a specific moment in its history and the documentation of it shows we’re not too different now than the attitudes running rampant back then. This shows itself the most with Bill the Butcher. A leader of the ruling gang at the Five Points, nothing happens in those streets without him getting a piece. However, he also has no love for anyone he considers an outsider, with most of his anger being directed towards the Irish coming in droves from across the Atlantic. Ironically, he and his gang consider themselves natives, which they certainly are not the original people who lived on that land. His xenophobia has absolutely no shame, but the scariest facet of his language is that it does not differ too much from much of the extremist racist language persistent today.
While ambitious, this film also bites off far more than it can chew, which at times gives the appearance of it being fairly unfocused. The main premise of it lands on how the gangs of the area did more than just cause trouble for law enforcement, they impacted elections and essentially became the stick used by the ruling class to have some control over the poor folks of the city. The intersection between them becomes evident in the way the mayor operates with both Bill and Amsterdam but when it gets to aspects about race, the film slips up. Particularly, towards the end of the feature with the riots occurring, there are some troubling scenes with the few Black characters in the film. With no agency given to them, what was depicted may have been historically accurate but feels far too detached from the story at hand that makes me question its inclusion into the narrative. The film is more about class and xenophobia, but the race element does not receive nearly enough attention to allow the story to go where it went with the sparse amount of Black characters involved.
When the film is focused, however, it’s a complete blast in the outlandish nature of the costume design and the history it represents of these gangs. A weird sense of honor existed between them when they would discuss how they would battle to the death and how it would assert they had control of the Five Points. It makes for quite the history lesson of how things operated and just how wild things were in the city when you had gangs essentially running the city and having a large impact on how things were governed until the real ruling class put down their iron fist to remind everyone who is truly in charge.
Even with this being DiCaprio and Scorsese’s first of many collaborations, this film belongs solely to Daniel Day-Lewis. While not as impressive as his other performances, the way he absolutely devours this role is quite the viewing experience. From the very onset, he knows exactly how to take on a silly but incredibly dangerous character like Bill the Butcher. At times he is downright hilarious while also reminding the audience why the character has that nickname with how he can wield sharp utensils. With everyone dialed to about a five, he is rocking up at a ten to truly be the star of the show even with the racist and xenophobic rants he likes to go on.
Very messy as a whole but ultimately an absolute riot of a time, Gangs of New York captures a specific moment of time and does it with plenty of style. While containing some unearned unsavory aspects, it successfully transports the audience to a time where gangs ruled the streets and xenophobia was the most popular item on the menu. Unfortunately, not all of these aspects are extinct today, but rather it shows how this mindset was not only prevalent then but had been part of the American way for centuries now.