"Some of it I half remember. And the rest? The rest I took from dreams."
At one point, Martin Scorsese called Gangs of New York (2002) "a spaghetti western set on Mars." It's a deliriously strange movie, that shouldn't be seen as a descendant of any of Scorsese's other "gangster" pictures. This has virtually nothing in common with Mean Streets, Goodfellas, or Casino, except, of course, that the streets are mean. Of the films Scorsese made in the first decade of the 21st century, it's the one I like the best. It's the one where the experience of watching it in the theater for the first time on opening night remains indelibly etched in my brain.
I've had a lot of conversations about this movie over the years, mostly with people who don't care for it. One of my movie correspondents told me once that this was the first of a string of movies (culminating in The Departed) in which Scorsese was shamelessly playing to Academy voters. Certainly, Daniel Day Lewis's performance is so out-sized that even the meanest Academy voter can appreciate it, the argument sometimes goes. It's a pity that Leonardo Di Caprio vanishes in Lewis's shadow in this movie, leaving a hole at its center. For the most part, these conversations have convinced me, over time, that many of my movie friends don't have the barest inkling of what they are talking about with this movie. Oscar bait? Really? This movie has a character in it named Hellcat Maggie, who has filed her teeth to points, takes the ears of her enemies as trophies, and keeps them pickled in a jar at the end of a bar. If this is "Oscar bait," then give me more.
I think the key to Gangs of New York is found in that opening line of narration. This is a dream of New York, a half-remembered legend from a period and place that most people know nothing about. The mythological nature of the movie is important, just as Di Caprio's subordination to that legend is important. This is not a modern or post-modern narrative. It sprawls. It is a picaresque. Amsterdam Vallon, Di Caprio's character, is Ishmael to Lewis's Ahab, or Cormac McCarthy's nameless kid in Blood Meridian to Lewis's Judge Holden. Vallon is a viewpoint, not a character, and is intended as such. Also like those two narratives, this is about violence as a historical imperative in the formation of the American identity, and I think that this is something that the movie does brilliantly. It puts its finger on the central fissure in the American identity: the conflict between nativists and know-nothings, and the immigrants and ethnic "others," and it presses down hard. I don't agree with the critics who claim that the film is unfocused. I think it builds deliberately to a climax in which the main antagonists, nativist and immigrant, wind up indistinguishable from one another in the ruins of a New York leveled by the draft riots of the Civil War.
Apart from all of that, though, Gangs of New York is a film into which Scorsese poured every ounce of his considerable knowledge about filmmaking. This film contains what is probably my favorite single shot of the decade, in which the camera follows Irish immigrants off the boat to where they're being processed into citizenship and into the Union Army, then over to where the coffins are being loaded back onto the boats. This is all in one unbroken take. This is the cinematic equivalent to those murals that tell every part of a story in one image. It's a tour de force. And at the very end of the movie is a cut that shows Scorsese not as a Catholic filmmaker, but as a Buddhist (the director who made Kundun rather than the one who made The Last Temptation of Christ), when everything is swept away by the passage of time. That the final image of this cut is the World Trade towers is an accidental exclamation point.
Some of Scorsese's signature gifts are present in this film in singularly weird incarnations. His use of "needle drop" soundtracks, for instance, winds up mutated into a percussive mixture of fife and drum music interspersed with folk songs from the period. Present, too, is the director's obsessive attention to details, which in this film results in a riot of colorful, unfamiliar, and outre historical items, from the role of fire brigades in antebellum New York to the varieties of prostitutes and thieves to the various entertainments people used to escape their lives. This isn't a dry, period piece. At times it seems like a post-apocalyptic movie--especially at the beginning--and at others it seems like a collection of tall tales or cartoons. This last is appropriate, given that what remains in the popular imagination about this period is informed by the great cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who brought down Boss Tweed. This film provides a vivid interpretation of Tweed by Jim Broadbent. In some ways, Gangs of New York is the antithesis of Scorsese's other historical New York film, The Age of Innocence: Where that film was all tightly controlled gentility, this one is savage and sprawling; they're two sides of the same coin, one Apollonian order, the other Dionysian chaos.
In any event, the experience of watching it for the first time, as I say, is branded on my memory. It was thrilling, compulsive, and, in some ways overwhelming. There came a time near the end of the film when I realized that I was holding my breath for short periods, almost suffocated by what I was watching. It was an experience the likes of which I've never had at the movies, before or since.