Friday, February 5, 2010

Why I Love Scorsese

Film: Gangs of New York
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Leonardo DiCaprio catches a lot of grief from people who, for whatever reason, don’t like him. Maybe it’s because he’s pretty, maybe in real life he’s a bit of a jerk, or maybe they’re hating the player instead of hating the game. Regardless of the reason, it’s pretty evident to me that DiCaprio has the chops to hang with anyone on the big screen. Dude can act. So too can Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s won two Oscars and been nominated for two others. Put them both together in the same movie, and you could get a variety of things. You might get a clash of egos or you might get Gangs of New York.

Of course, it helps that the supporting cast for this film is fantastic. Cameron Diaz, who has made a career for herself in a lot of fluff films and a few great ones picked a fantastic role for herself this time. John C. Reilly, currently making every comedy possible with Will Farrell, makes a dramatic turn here, and Brendan Gleeson (a personal favorite of mine) turns in his typically stellar work here. Another great performance is produced by Jim Broadbent, who I didn’t recognize under the giant beard and the huge stovepipe hat.

This is the story of a lawless area in New York City in the mid-19th Century. Life around the Five Points is a constant battle between allied gangs looking for control. The two main factions are the natives and the foreigners. The natives are led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) and his group of American citizens. The foreign contingent is led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), who heads up the Dead Rabbits.

In the skirmish that starts the film, Vallon is killed by Cutting, who declares the Dead Rabbits illegal. Cutting takes control of the Five Points, and from this point on, he holds sway with an iron fist, eventually influencing everyone in the city, including the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, led by William Tweed (Broadbent). Vallon’s son is sent off to an orphanage, and emerges 16 years later as Amsterdam (DiCaprio), bent on revenge for his fallen father.

Thrown into this mix is Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), who had a previous relationship with Cutting, who rescued her from the streets. She and Amsterdam have a volatile relationship that culminates in something approaching love tinged with jealousy and anger. Their relationship is an interesting one and helps propel the movie forward. Jenny’s “job” as a bluget (female pickpocket) and a turtledove (thief posing as a maid) informs her character, and creates the first two meetings between the pair. As Amsterdam comments, “It takes a lot of sand to be a turtledove,” and Jenny has the sand.

To get his revenge, Amsterdam essentially works his way into Cutting’s crew, becoming one of Cutting’s most important lieutenants. At the moment of his betrayal, Amsterdam is foiled, setting up the final act of the give and take, push and shove battle between Cutting and Amsterdam.

This is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. While the Irish are coming off the boat and being immediately conscripted into the Union Army, Cutting and his group are doing what they can to make their arrival painful. As the war heats up and the Union begins the first ever mandatory conscription act, the city heats up to a boiling point that culminates at the same time as the climactic battle for the Five Points.

Gangs of New York was directed by the great Martin Scorsese, who may be the greatest living director in the world today. The film is unquestionably a Scorsese picture. He shies away from nothing, and many points in the film are extremely violent. I don’t mind violence when it makes sense for the film (see yesterday’s travesty for a film in which the violence is completely gratuitous) and for this movie, the violence is essential. It comes in fits and starts, but always makes sense, even when it seems to come from nowhere. For me, the most impressive Scorsese moment comes in the montage of Amsterdam, Cutting, and New York royalty Mr. Schermerhorn (David Hemmings) saying grace simultaneously. The first two are gearing up for battle, the third for Sunday brunch, and with the amens, all hell breaks loose across the city.

Another major selling point is the set. The buildings of the Five Points were built as a real set, and I can only imagine the scale. It’s tremendously big, dilapidated, and impressive. It’s also incredibly claustrophobic, which I imagine is also perfectly realistic. The city of New York depicted in this movie is one filled with people on top of people living in squalor.

This is a remarkable film. Although many criticized it for being uneven in places, I don’t see such unevenness. Instead, I see one of the most masterful performances in the last 20 years in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis. He leaps into this role and grabs it with both hands and his teeth. Scorsese originally planned to make this movie in 1978, and a number of other people were considered for the role. Lewis’s performance is so strong that I cannot picture another person playing this part.

This is not to short the performances of Broadbent, DiCaprio, Diaz, or anyone else. It’s simply Daniel Day-Lewis’s movie through and through. That this film lost all 10 of its Oscar nominations is shocking to me. That Lewis lost is amazing, and that the film lost for Best Picture to Chicago leaves me stunned. Despite its near three-hour running time, at no time does Gangs of New York drag or cause me to lose interest. It is magnificent, and deserves to be seen.

Why to watch Gangs of New York: Daniel Day-Lewis. There, I said it and I’d say it again.
Why not to watch: “Cutting” is not only Bill’s last name, it’s also what he does with very large knives to people.

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