As Seen on the Small Screen: ‘Gangs of New York’

On Netflix

Browsing through my Netflix account, I stumbled upon a movie that I had not watched in a decade: Martin Scorsese’s epic 2002 film “Gangs of New York.” This two-and-a-half-hour tale of violence, revenge, betrayal, and friendship features Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Scorsese’s semi-historically accurate story revolves around Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), a young man in 1860s Manhattan. After being released from an orphanage, Amsterdam seeks to avenge the death of his father, the former leader of a gang of Irish immigrants. However, his father’s killer, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis), has already established his gang of “true” Americans as the ruling force in Amsterdam’s childhood community—the notorious “Five Points.”

So much for the film’s premise. While it might seem like “Gangs of New York” is set up to be an ordinary, run-of-the-mill revenge action flick, things get a lot more complicated and interesting. In fact, Amsterdam is far too successful in his efforts to get closer to the Butcher who, not recognizing him, takes him in as his apprentice and starts to regard him as his son. Amsterdam shares at least some of the Butcher’s feelings, stating that “It's a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon. It's warmer than you'd think.”

This curious relationship makes Scorsese’s film so absorbing: It creates moments of intense suspense, confusing affection, and pure rage, both for the viewer and for the protagonists. Undoubtedly, it takes two very talented actors to form such a relationship on screen—and Daniel Day-Lewis especially excels in it. The only male to win three best-actor Oscars, he received another best-actor nomination for his role as the Butcher. His portrayal of a man who is rational but violent, empathetic but merciless, sometimes principled but sometimes opportunistic, is convincing through and through. Day-Lewis has created a three-dimensional character on a two-dimensional screen, one that touched me deeply with its humanity, one that stayed with me for a decade after the film was over.

Looking back, however, that is not all that there is to love about “Gangs of New York.” It is also one of the last large-scale blockbuster films that was produced without CGI (except for one very short scene where no elephant was available to run wild in the Five Points). In this lies much of its beauty: The Five Points is an actual set. Every facade, every street is real. So are explosions and muzzle flashes and cannon fire—blood that splatters actually splatters. The fact that “Gangs of New York” is self-contained—in the sense that what the camera sees is what the viewer sees—gives it an aura of cinematic craftsmanship.

Scorsese has created a homage to New York City that is full of iconic (a Bible sinking into the water) and ironic (soldiers boarding while caskets are coming off a ship) imagery. “Gangs of New York” also deals with ever-present topics such as poverty, class divisions, and racism. The film is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

—Staff writer Jorma P. Görns can be reached at jorma.gorns@thecrimson.com.

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Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, and Cameron Diaz at Cannes in 2002.

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