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Directed by Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York is an adaptation of a 1927 book by Herbert Asbury, based on real events, bloodied and violent, depicting a horrific chapter in American history that saw a massive rise in gang warfare and protests as immigrants flocked to the United States. The film centers on the exploits of William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a hot-tempered, battle-scarred, native-born U.S. citizen and leader of the local Nativist gang looking to secure the valuable Five Points districts as home to only those like him. His biggest opponent is “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), an Irish Catholic immigrant gang leader of the Dead Rabbits. It is his son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), who witnesses his brutal death, swept away to an orphanage in safety for years, who returns in anonymity to weasel his way into the Nativists gang to get closer to Butcher and get his revenge. The film is a marvel of direction and acting, with Scorsese creating a vivid recreation of 1860s New York that is both realistic and somewhat exaggerated, a bit purposefully over-done and peppered with subtle fantastical elements that absolutely jump off the screen. And while DiCaprio is well-cast and very good as the motivated young man, this movie is Day-Lewis’ from first to start. The Butcher is a startling character, a menacing cartoon villain brought to frightful life, chewing his way through every scene with ravenous aplomb. His odd voice and spastic gestures, wild costumes and dark, Snidely Whiplash attitude only serve to paint him as one of cinema’s most terrifying bad guys. With some great supporting work, including the love interest played by Cameron Diaz, this is a political thriller with a dramatic statement about discrimination and American democracy, a challenging film that doesn’t always satisfy but is still a mesmerizing experience.
That Moment: Near the start of the film, Bill the Butcher has called for the Nativists to stand behind the claim that the Five Points are theirs, assembling to do hand-to-hand combat with the rival Dead Rabbits and their affiliated gangs. It is winter, cold and bleak, and the legions of men on both side are clutching axes, knives, batons, clubs, cleavers, spears and more. On one side, Bill wears his over-sized black hat, adorned with their gang’s blue satin scarf, while behind him, throngs of followers await the go. Across the courtyard stands Vallon, his neck clasped in an iron collar for protection with just as many men behind him ready to draw blood, all marked by red sashes. Bill the Butcher bellows out that this land is theirs and they are ready to kick out the unwelcome immigrants or die trying, while Vallon and his men accept the challenge, engaging in a nightmarish, chaotic clash of steel, blood and bones that will come to define not only the country at this critical moment, but a man and boy whose lived will be shaped by the outcome.
Why it Matters: The pride of the Nativists sees the crowded boroughs quickly being overrun by the hordes of poor foreigners rushing for a piece of the new American dream. Bill is a man on the very last threads of tolerance and has built a raving, sadistic anger for those not born his this country. Vallon is a good man trying to carve out a life in his adopted home, raising his young boy as best he can. This clash is the culmination of years of uprisings, mistrust, antagonism and more, a confrontation born out of poor living conditions, lack of space, and a local government rife with corruption and violence. These are people with nothing left to lose, no room for peace and unable to find harmony in an environment brimming with hostility. This moment is the introduction of Bill the Butcher, a bellicose figure of great mystery who rules his roost with unquestioned power. He is a man conditioned by violence and uprising, his very blood stirred by the anticipation of conflict. And while he despises Vallon for what he is, he admires him for who his is, a proud, ruthlessly determined leader. The two have been bitter combatants for some time and their meeting on the battlefield, as it were, is certainly not their first time at odds. The two towering figures are representative of much more than the two gangs, their positions the core beliefs of many at the time, most notably the wealth of Irish who would face immense hardship and resentment as they continued to establish their place in the city. It is this tenacity that Bill the Butcher may fight against but equally respects, even claiming years later, to Vallon’s son no less, that Vallon was the last respectable man he ever fought. All of this is evident in the lead up to and engagement of their two gang’s battle at Five Points, a terrifying moment in history and a remarkable cinematic achievement.
Jay Cocks (story), Jay Cocks (screenplay)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis