[Oscar Madness Monday] Gangs of New York (2002)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson

Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

167 mins. Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Actor in a Leading Role [Daniel Day-Lewis]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction – Set Decoration
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Costume Design
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Sound
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Song

 

I’ve really wanted to revisit Gangs of New York for some time. I recall catching it back in college, and I also recall not liking it very much. Since college, I’ve grown to love and respect Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Irishman) and his filmography. He’s since become a director, in my eyes, that I would place on a Mt. Rushmore of all-time directors, but a few films by the director just didn’t click with me at the time, but I’ve wanted to watch those films again. Gangs of New York is one such picture. During this time of social distancing, I now have that time to rewatch Gangs of New York. Let’s see how this plays out.

The year is 1862, and Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) has return to New York City, to a place called the Five Points he fled from years ago. Vallon only has one goal in mind: to kill Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread), the man who killed his father in a brutal gang fight when Vallon was a child. Vallon finds himself infiltrating Bill’s inner workings in order to gain his confidence and get his vengeance, but matters are complicated when he comes into contact with an attractive pickpocket named Jenny (Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary, Annie) and the lines are blurred among the Five Points.

It’s impressive that Leo is able to maintain a presence onscreen with Day-Lewis. This is still a film relatively early in the career of Leonardo DiCaprio, and his subdued yet strong performance is still able to hold his own. I really like DiCaprio here because he is able to portray Amsterdam Vallon’s internal flaws, which is something that becomes more complex as the narrative unfolds. Vallon’s emotional strain is stretched to the snapping point by what he is forced to endure at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” throughout the film.

Make no mistakes, though, no one is outshining Daniel Day-Lewis here as Bill Cutting. His fast-talking molasses-drawled speech is engaging, and his menacing visual performance is so catching and engaging. I love how DDL stays in character throughout shooting (he reportedly had dinner with Scorsese and DiCaprio in character after shooting wrapped for the day), and it seemingly helps his performance because he owns every film he appears in.

I know I’m beating a dead horse with this, but because of all the performing prowess displayed by not only DiCaprio and Day-Lewis but most of the supporting cast, it is quite noticeable how out-of-her-element Diaz is. Her broken accent as Jenny Everdeane is only overshadowed by her seeming disinterest in her character or the film she’s in. She just doesn’t engage on an entertainment level.

The screenplay for Gangs of New York is from Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan. There’s some prowess to this screenwriting crew, but I have a lot of problems with the screenplay. I feel like it was written very capably but it isn’t accessible. It’s a screenplay made for the audiences of 1862 instead of for today. The first time I watched it, I just couldn’t get into it, but I will say it was much better on the second viewing, but even then, I find some real problems with the screenplay. There’s a lost quality to the narrative at the beginning and near the end, with the second act of the film finding its footing.

Martin Scorsese is really trying something new with Gangs of New York. His directing style is a little more erratic, ambitious, and violent. Not all of it works within the confines of the film, but it showcases Scorsese’s interest in evolving. You can complain all you want about Martin Scorsese as a gangster filmmaker, but he is so much more than that, and Gangs of New York is a very different gangster film, or film in general, than anything else in his oeuvre. As stated, not all of the visual storytelling Scorsese presents here works, and I think, again, it works on a second viewing better than the first time around.

Gangs of New York is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s more positive than negative in all this, but it still struggles getting going and finishing strong. There’s a lot of good meat to the film, but it both works and doesn’t work, with the positive outweighing the negative. I enjoyed it on the second viewing way more than the first, mostly from the incredible work from DiCaprio and DDL. This will work for historical buffs or anyone with a bloodlust for bloody violence as well, to varying degrees.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, click here.

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