Even if you’ve never been to New York or have no desire to step within 100 yards of the city, you still have a concept of how New York is situated, perhaps even more than your own city. There’s Manhattan, a banana-like-shaped slob of land surrounded by the outer boroughs, which you probably know of Brooklyn, maybe Queens, and then perhaps The Bronx or Staten Island. Now you may not know which borough is which on the map, but you can picture a map of Manhattan at least in your mind, that on that stretch of land is where all the hustle and bustle happens.
Sadly, even with this familiarity with the space of New York, and even him being one of New York’s most New Yorky-New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese fails to create a sense of place in his swashbuckling, lawless depiction of the city in Gangs of New York. We get the sense of what this era of the world is like, with men wearing yard-long top hats, and women walking around in overly-complicated gowns that take hours to put on. We get a sense of the racial hostility and prejudice towards immigrants, how the rich feed on the poor, and just how marvelously diverse and cluttered and squeezed-in this city is, an urban pimple ready to burst with any outside pressure.
But in Scorsese’s film, we have no concept of where this action is happening, if Five Points is just a block away from Uptown or a five-hour horse ride or if Bill’s butcher shop is around the corner or an hour stroll from Monk’s barber shop. It’s a difficult thing to do, to not only tell a powerful story in an older version of New York, but to make that version of New York relatable and understandable enough that we get the full grip of the story being told. With Gangs of New York though, Scorsese kind of succeeds at the first but fails at the second.
In this film, we follow Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who’s returned to New York to take vengeance upon his father, who was murdered by the charismatic and fear-mongering Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is something of an unofficial Mayor of the city, beloved and feared by its residents, holding enough power and sway to get anything and everything he wants at the touch of his mighty top hat. Bill is intrigued by Amsterdam and takes him under his wing, just as Amsterdam is falling in love with a pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (played by Cameron Diaz). Everything comes to a halt when Bill finds out about Amsterdam’s true background, and the two plan for battle as the city devolves into chaos.
Diaz’s performance is ok, admirable even considering her recent comedic streak to this point. Leo, though, fails to entice. This is just a personal thing I have with Leo, as every movie I watch with him I just always see Leo, never the character he’s trying to play. He never fully transforms or loses himself in a character, but is always just Leo wearing a different costume and expressing the thoughts and words that belongs to someone else.
But Daniel Day-Lewis leaps off the screen and stabs us in the heart with his powerful performance. He nails the mannerisms of his character and propels his ferocity with reckless abandon. You forget you’re watching him on screen, so entranced by Bill that he’s like a person who travelled-in-time to current day, just to star as himself in this movie.
Daniel Day-Lewis is worth watching this movie. As are the elaborate set pieces that don’t feel urban so much as saloons filled with immigrants in the wild west. Perhaps this is what Scorsese was going for the whole time, trying to depict just how lawless and corrupt and disembowelingly-dangerous New York was at that place in time. But he sadly doesn’t make it feel like New York, and in turn, makes his movie lose its Big Apple luster.