Movie Review


Gangs of New York poster

Gangs of New York

Production Company: Miramax
Director: Martin Scorsese, (Bringing Out the Dead)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson
Rating: R (intense violence, sexuality, nudity, language)

( -- “America was born in the streets,” says the film’s tagline, and in this harrowing story one feels the birth pains.

Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon
Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon leads the Irish immigrants against the Dutch and English Nativists. Photo © Copyright Miramax Films
From the start of the nearly three-hour picture you get a visceral feel for the real, head-bashing, vicious struggle for a piece of America that characterized the Great Immigration years of the 1860s. Set in mid 19th century New York, the film is loosely based on a factual book of the same name published in 1928. The cinematic story line is a tale of personal revenge that unfolds in an environment rich with cultural strife, ethnic hatred and economic deprivation - themes that still reverberate in the world today.

The principal conflict is between new immigrants (Irish), led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and established ones (English, Dutch), who call themselves “Nativists” and are led by Bill “the Butcher” Cutter (Daniel Day Lewis). These two ethnic street gangs battle ceaselessly for turf, each driven by the basic human need for respect and a sense of power or “ownership.”

Both the Irish immigrants and the Nativists in Gangs are convinced of the absolute righteousness of their respective claims, and both invoke God’s support in their murderous vendettas. In this New York, the two factions each lay claim to a God that doesn’t seem to be present in this film. You find yourself seeking to make such comparisons as Christian Crusaders vs. “infidels,” farmers vs. ranchers, Bosnians vs. Serbs and Tutsis vs. Hutus.

Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) confronts Bill
Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) confronts Bill "The Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis). Photo © Copyright Miramax Films
What makes Gangs a film so worth seeing is the gut-level impact of the multi-layered narrative, along with the big moral questions it presents – questions disturbing and at the same time familiar.

The historic brawl between the Nativists and the Irish factions in Paradise Square on New York’s Lower East Side left the snow-covered ground red with blood, the pervasive image of the film.

Vallon is killed and his young son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left to grow up in Hellgate School of Reform, a place which feeds his hunger for revenge. Years later, Amsterdam, now a young man seeking vengeance, hides his rage and worms his way into “The Butcher’s” inner circle. Bill Cutter befriends Amsterdam, as if he were a son, forcing his young protégé to question his loyalties to his heritage and slain father. The performance by Daniel Day Lewis is mesmerizing, so much so, you sense that you are staring into the face of evil.

Martin Scorsese provides us a glimpse of a particular time and place, the sensibilities it produced that gives us insight, through this historical setting, of today’s conflicts. The parallels are chilling.

Cameron Diaz's character, Jenny Everdeane
Cameron Diaz's character, Jenny Everdeane, a feisty pickpocket, sparks conflict, sometimes with horrific results. Photo © Copyright Miramax Films
Visually and intellectually, this film bridges the gap between the traditional image of a heroic and innocent age of immigrants depicted in our schoolbooks and something closer to reality. While the Butcher personifies evil, there is plenty of it elsewhere in this film as well. Virtually all factions depicted have an evil aspect: In the blood thirst of the Irish gangs, in the flagrant corruption of the politics, in the government recruiters preying on desperate new immigrants, and in the lurking specter of violent death ready at every turn.

Gangs of New York is a brutal history lesson about pre-industrial New York, a time seething with the clash of cultures and punctuated by the draft riots of 1863 when an open rebellion against “Lincoln’s war” very nearly destroyed the city. Historic and declared wars aside; New York was literally born in the blood of its people. If we truly are to learn from history, why does this film seem to mirror so many current global conflicts?

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