Content note: In addition to spoilers, this article contains references to 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and racist violence
The year is 2002. The US in general, and New York in particular, are still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing Toby Keith promising to put a boot in your ass because it’s the American Way or Billy Ray Cyrus grunting about how all gave some, but some gave all. Flags wave from every building. Middle Eastern immigrants face new levels of prejudice and violence. We’re at war with Afghanistan because they might have had vanishingly little to do with the bombing, but they all look the same to us. The next year, the military will apply the same logic to Iraq. Another war and the international embarrassment of “freedom fries” are on the horizon. But that’s all justified, because this is America. Land of the free, the birthplace of modern democracy.
And then in comes Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York. Not long after Clear Channel Radio banned over a hundred songs for crimes ranging from referencing the sky to sounding too happy, Scorsese managed to smuggle into millions of theaters a version of American history that’s still shockingly cynical even after the last twenty years have left us all as jaded as a Chinese jewelry store. “Never look away,” Liam Neeson’s mob boss Priest Vallon tells his son as he dies. Daniel Day-Lewis as his rival Bill the Butcher tells that son, now grown up into Leonardo DiCaprio, how after narrowly surviving a beating from Priest, he “cut out the eye that looked away.” That sums up Scorsese’s attitude in the movie. The true history of America is ugly. Don’t you dare look away.
Democracy is a sham, and not even an effective one — Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed swings the election for Brendan Gleeson’s Sheriff Monk McGinn “by more ballots than there are voters,” and Bill the Butcher can still topple him from power with a few blows to the head in full view of the constituency. Earlier, he literally draped himself in the flag to tell Amsterdam Vallon, “That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” History isn’t made by great men, but by the scum of the earth (an idea Scorsese would return to recently in The Irishman, where the mob sweeps Kennedy into the presidency).
Tweed openly works with Bill until he becomes a political liability. When he hires the Butcher to intimidate his constituents into compliance, Bill asks why Tweed can’t just hire the police — or as he calls them, “Crushers” — the political kingmaker responds, offended, “The appearance of the law must be maintained.” But there’s no question who the law really belongs to — in a strange paradox, Bill, supposedly an outlaw himself, authoritatively declares the Dead Rabbits “outlawed.” Just as tellingly, Amsterdam refers to the local aristocrats as “the Schemerhorns and their mob” — they may put on a more genteel facade, but they’re no different from the other gangs, or the unruly mob that erupts into violence in the last act.
In 2016, my film professor called Bill’s rabid hatred of immigrants “Trumpian,” but it was just as timely in 2002 as it is now, even if the immigrants in question are Irish Catholics instead of Middle Eastern Muslims. And as America claimed she was “bringing democracy” to Iraq and Afghanistan by bombing the shit out of them, Scorsese looks back to the time when she was “civilizing the west” — Horace “Go west, young man” Greely even makes an appearance. The film shows just how laughable it is to think America could civilize anywhere else. New York City, supposedly the epicenter of American civilization, looks more like a frontier town itself — and not the cleaned-up Frontierland version either. Farm animals run through the muddy streets. John C. Reilly’s copper Happy Jack is so focused on convincing his aristocratic guests he can keep them safe with an elaborate show of leaving his watch on a lamppost that he doesn’t even acknowledge a corpse lying in the streets until one of his guests points it out. And even then, he doesn’t seem to care.
Nature hasn’t yet been tamed — Monk’s barber shop is built into the living rock. Many scenes turn the cast into prehistoric cave dwellers, hiding out in the caverns under the ruins of a dead brewery. One scene even takes place in a medieval-style ossuary, skulls stacked like bricks. Bill’s favored hangout at Satan’s Circus has subtle hints of the same dark, subterranean atmosphere. Cavern walls are visible in the background, a tree has spread its roots over the bar, and the stairs are banistered with twisted, unworked wood. Things we take for granted become nonfunctional under early America’s runaway capitalism — the city’s many fire departments are just gangs in different uniforms, and they’re more interested in fighting each other over looting rights than ever putting out any fires.
That primeval imagery gets at the other central appeal of the film. I’ve mentioned before that even though Scorsese’s my favorite director, it’s not for any of the “right” films — i.e., the ones about gangsters. So why am I writing so effusively about the one that’s generally considered the worst of the bunch? In large part because most Scorsese gangsters aren’t just unsympathetic, because who cares about that? They’re something much worse — they’re uncompelling. Henry Hill, Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, Jordan Belfort — they have no human desires beyond wealth and adrenaline.
Amsterdam has the ultimate, oldest motivation: a blood oath. As Monk tells him, it’s “downright Shakespearean,” (I’ve still never figured out whether he’s fucking with him or genuinely ignorant when he adds, “You know who that is don’t you? He’s the man wrote the King James Bible”). Amsterdam knows he’s living in the ancient world with its unbending rules. Monk spells it out when he dismisses Bill as “a relic of the ancient law.”
That’s what compels Amsterdam to kill Bill for his father’s murder even after Bill becomes a second father to him. That’s why he bides his time until he can do the deed in full view of Bill’s cronies at their yearly celebration of the defeat of Priest and his Dead Rabbits gang. It’s why after his best friend Johnny confesses and apologizes for selling him out to Bill, Amsterdam can only reply, “I gotta kill you, Johnny.” That word “gotta” speaks volumes: he has no choice. The best he can do is order Johnny to get out of town. Even that doesn’t spare him the responsibility after Johnny goes to Bill for help and ends up impaled on the same fencepost where Amsterdam hung a dead rabbit to announce the gang’s return. There’s no alternatives left. Amsterdam has to kill Johnny, even if it’s out of mercy instead of retribution. Not that the ancient law does anything to rein in the violence. For all Bill talks himself blue in the face about Priest’s “honor,” he has no qualms stabbing an unarmed man in the back.
“Gangs of New York,” more than any of Scorsese’s other films, comes closest to outpacing his early favorites, not just because of the gorgeous full-size sets (which Scorsese speculated, with unfortunate prescience, would be the last of their kind), or the overwhelming abundance of period detail. It’s because this story is truly epic, not in its history-spanning complexity but its core in the simple, primal storyline of the great epic poems.
But that complexity is just as important to Gangs’ greatness. This was only the second Scorsese movie I ever saw, after catching Hugo in the theater. Like young Marty watching The Ten Commandments, I was hooked. That introduction, and the shock of seeing Marty sing the praises of deeply unfashionable Hollywood spectacles like Commandments and Duel in the Sun in A Personal Journey Through American Film shaped my understanding of Scorsese as an epic filmmaker, and that side of his art reaches its apotheosis here. Reteaming with art director Dante Ferreti, Scorsese created a vision of Civil War-era New York that felt as big as the world.
Scorsese cheerfully admits he took liberties with history because the film was an “opera” instead of a literal recreation of history. But it feels accurate in a way most more literal histories don’t, because all those details may have come from different eras, but they’re all too specific and too strange to believe they could have been made up. The almost comic-book figure of Hellcat Maggie, with her filed teeth, clawed gloves, and habit of paying for drinks with severed ears the bartender keeps in a pickle jar. The leather cap Bill wears to protect his fastidiously greased curls in the gang wars that bookend the film. The assortment of colorful gangs taken from the book of the same name — Bowery Boys, Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Shirt Tails.
Scorsese’s disinterest in chronological accuracy allows him to bring in history-textbook fixtures before their time — Tweed, Greely, and P.T. Barnum, who’s every bit as loathsome here as he’s whitewashed in The Greatest Showman. That’s nothing new — nine out of every ten period pieces pulls the same trick for some cheap “I know that guy!” thrills. But it’s something more here — these American icons’ presence emphasizes just how mired in corruption the country’s founding is.
Whether it’s Scorsese’s finest work, it’s hard to deny Gangs is the high point of his collaboration with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Ballhaus is most known for his masterful tracking shots, especially in the famous Copacabana scene of Goodfellas. But other filmmakers have been able to match him there. What’s unique and immediately recognizable about Ballhaus is his unique approach to light and color, creating scenes that seem to glow from within with something more than the light of the projector. It may be seconds away from collapse at any moment, but Ballhaus’s Christmas-light-colored Old New York is still so seductive it’s a pleasure to spend three hours there.
On the other hand, there’s something distinctly hellish about his flaming color palette, fitting Scorsese’s multilayered symbolism — of New York as an inferno with the satanic Bill at its heart, and the more ambivalent metaphor of fire as the power of the people: “All you need is one spark … And before you know it, the sky’s on fire.” Gangs is like a highlights reel for Ballhaus — the doctor’s head floating in the darkness of caverns, Bill’s knife embedded in a poster of Lincoln in the ruby-red light, the pinhole-narrow focus on Jenny rifle obscuring everything but the ned of the barrel, shining bright as polished copper. I thought for years no other cinematographer had accomplished what Ballhaus did, creating light that was somehow red and green and gold all at once. But the other night I saw his forebear — where else? — in Loyal Griggs’ photography for The Ten Commandments.
Like its predecessors, Gangs is big enough to find room for compelling stories for its all-star cast of bit players. None are more poignant than Gleeson’s Monk. When we first see him with his notch-covered shillelagh, it seems like yet another example of the violent macho bragadoccio that defines the world of Gangs. But he reveals it’s a source of shame, not pride: “These notches are to remind me what I owe God when I die.” So it just makes sense he’d jump at the chance to effect social change through nonviolent, democratic means. When Bill shows up to his barbershop to goad him into a fight, he takes a vote from the crowd, and offers Bill instead a seat in the chair to talk out their differences like civilized human beings. His idealism kills him. For all Bill’s posturing about American pride, he doesn’t give a tuppenny fuck for the principles of democracy, and he caves Monk’s head in with his own club.
Scorsese’s historical revisionism is shockingly thorough, but far from flawless. In a film that attempts to encompass the whole world of New York circa the Civil War, and its prejudice most of all, on paper, it would be incomplete without the era’s most virulent prejudice against Black people. But in practice, that means there’s more lines of white people using racist slurs than people of color saying anything. Even Deangelo Barksdale himself, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., gets the thankless role of Amsterdam’s token Black friend, and if his death has the weight of tragedy, it’s in spite of his role up to that point, not because of it.
But, while it might be easy to call that sense of tragedy unearned in that one instance, it’s pervasive throughout the film, from the grim fatalism of Amsterdam’s inevitable battle with the Butcher to the scene of immigrants marching off one boat to another bound for war, new bodies boarding as old bodies leave in coffins, to the ending, which still gets me every time. Amsterdam and Jenny stand at Bill’s grave outside the city, right next to his father’s. His patented Scorsese voiceover muses, “My father told me we was all born of blood and tribulation, and so then too was our great city. But for those of us what lived and died in them furious days, it was like everything we knew was mightily swept away. And no matter what they did to build this city up again… for the rest of time… it would be like no one ever knew we was even here.” And as if to prove him right, he and Jenny fade away like ghosts as we see the New York skyline grow up over the years as the grave markers rot away, finally ending with the now-lost Twin Towers as U2’s achingly sad “The Hands That Built America” hits a piercing high note. It’s an indictment of the accepted history — and who do they say writes it — but it’s a more than academic concern because of how much Scorsese’s made us care about these characters.
You can read more about Gangs of New York here