During one loopy, humid summer day I perused HBO Max for something that could distract me for a few hours and fell into that lap of another overlong, digitally-assisted Scorsese epics that I hadn’t seen. Unlike The Aviator or The Irishman, Gangs of New York blew me away. The contentious Weinstein-cut picture doesn’t have the best reputation even among diehards, and reading an article Nicky Smith wrote recently for Splice Today, pointing out that it hasn’t received a critical re-eval yet and likely won’t need one, I wondered if I’d really gone insane during the summer of 2020 or if there was something everyone else was missing. Coming back to the film I have to admit, as Nicky said, “The Age of Innocence it’s not,” but it’s another swing for the fences as so many Scorsese films are, but this one gets much closer to a home run than a select few masterpieces from his filmography.
Gangs of New York doesn’t open in its titular city except in technicality. It opens in a primordial cave, lit by torches held by holy crosses, filled with ceremoniously bloodied men draped in furs. Drums beat as they march to the surface. The door kicks open to a snowy street, whose decaying 18th-century constructions feel distinctly modern to the prehistoric hole the warriors have emerged from. The gangs come forth from the ruins, speaking of the ancient rules of combat. Blood runs the streets.
Set in the center of the 19th century at the center of a burgeoning New York City is the Five Points, a confluence of roads leading to the heart of the Great American Conflict between “natives” and “immigrants.” The “Native Americans” of Gangs aren’t the indigenous peoples, but instead the Nativists—the Anglo whites who were born in America. The film’s antagonist, one of Scorsese’s cruelest, is the Know Nothing leader Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Bill the Butcher is a near-idealistic, borderline-satirical imaging of a Hobbesian figure, carving out his domination in the state of nature of those muddy streets. Even his Nativistic ideology doesn’t seem grounded in logic as much as it is a pure will for power, a power he builds and maintains through the spectacle of violence. The more he’s at risk, the more spectacular it has to be. It doesn’t make him so different than Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his frock coats up in Tammany Hall, whose law and order is ostensibly made by permits and regulations, but is enforced by municipal police and happily supplemented with a good hanging. All that really separates them is Tweed’s pretense against Bill’s savage honesty.
Countering the Butcher is Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), who returns to the city from an orphanage upriver after he witnessed Bill murder his father, “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), in primal combat as their nativist and immigrant gangs bloodied the snow in the opening clash to decide the future of the Five Points, and by extension, the city. It's a classic revenge plot, where the soon-to-be assassin is taken under the wing of the target who’s none the wiser, leading to an inevitable clash as the characters’ knowledge of events slowly catches up to that of the audience. When the climactic battle does happen, a rematch of sorts between the immigrants and the nativists, it’s set in the backdrop of the New York City draft riots of 1863, where resentment from the lower classes against the problems of somewhere else and some other people became their problem too.
It is, in many ways, the same governing premise as any Scorsese film—whether the boys in Who’s That Knockin’ or the aging mafiosos in The Irishmen—as there’s something older, crueler, more brutally real law that governs the imagined legitimacy of the world. It would be incorrect, reductive, even mythical to say that all of human history has been governed by a distinctly masculine violence, but Scorsese makes movies about what he knows, about the place he grew up in, the people and tragedies around his life, and in there, in the New York that raised him, and the one that came before him and will probably come after him, is a violence that governs all. As he said over a black screen in the opening of Mean Streets, the film that in many ways would birth the career he’s known for today, “You don’t make up for your sins at church, you do it in the streets.”
This is a consistency in Scorsese’s work, a filmography more varied than he’s colloquially given credit for, his films center on the clash between ideal and action. Whether that’s in one of his few masterpieces (Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull) or one of his misguided messes (Casino, Taxi Driver), this specific kind of struggle between real and imagined, internal and external is always the driving force. While I believe that most of Scorsese’s swings are misses—if always interesting, and valuable to the medium, misses—the important part about Scorsese is that he always swings, he’s always pushing himself to the limit of what he can do as an artist. It’s a drive that sometimes leads to monumental works that are right at the very edge of his capabilities. Gangs of New York, while not The Age of Innocence, is as near to the sun as Scorsese could fly in 2002 without burning his wings and crashing back to earth.
The climactic battle at the end of the film did, notoriously, turn into a race riot, as Irish-Americans lynched their black neighbors, blaming them and the struggle against slavery for their developing woes. It was a symbolic step towards the Irish integration into white supremacy for their willingness to put themselves above black Americans through violence, as opposed maintaining solidarity in a mutual struggle against a country that hated them both. It’s also here where the film loses clarity; its striving for tight conclusions gets mired by the extraordinarily complex turn of events and their historic consequences. While many of the anachronistic oddities of the film serve its overall point about American violence, its actual depictions of real events causes a certain muddling that Scorsese doesn’t have time to properly explore. This likely isn’t even a result of the mandated cuts-for-time, it's just part of his incomplete picture.
It’s once again, however, some of Scorsese’s more overt stylistic presentations that act as his most precise pieces of storytelling. A sequence more than midway through the film shows uniformed men setting off for their enlistment, the camera craning up to the boat so the audience can see that the way on the ship is being made for them by the unloading of innumerable coffins. It’s an obvious image, one that may make many groan (not unlike DiCaprio’s character taking the original name of the titular city), but like the rat running across city hall at the end of The Departed, the mileage someone is going to get out of Scorsese’s maximalist images is going to vary based on how much they’re already invested in the picture.
Gangs of New York is just another point the evolution of the same-old America, like the images of New York itself fading into the future at the end of the film after the man bearing the city’s name butchered the butcher, seemingly resolving the grand, historic conflict on a personal level even if their gravestones fade and get covered in grass as they’re forgotten. The struggle on the human scale is always lost to time, and if there’s any indication from the rest of his filmography, the fight on the streets hasn’t changed that much at all.