Thursday, December 5, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.20: Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 75/B+

Expectations can be a real bitch sometimes. Gangs of New York is a damn good movie by pretty much any standards, including Martin Scorsese’s. What’s disappointing about it is that at every turn, it feels like it should be a great movie, particularly if you know the film’s history. The film was one of Scorsese’s three passion projects he’d held onto since the 1970s (the others being The Last Temptation of Christ and Dino, a Dean Martin biopic that was slated to be made in the early 2000s with Tom Hanks as Dino and John Travolta as Sinatra, but was canceled in favor of Gangs; we might still get it in some form if we ever see that Sinatra biopic).

 Scorsese spent the better part of two decades pushing for the film but never quite getting it made. At different points, Scorsese wanted Malcolm McDowell, Robert De Niro, Dan Aykroyd and Mel Gibson as the hero Amsterdam and John Belushi, Willem Dafoe and De Niro as the villain. It was canceled several times for a variety of reasons: Belushi’s death, the failure of Heaven’s Gate making big budget period pieces a studio’s worst nightmare, or the stars just not quite aligning. Finally, Harvey Weinstein came to the rescue and gave Scorsese a chance to make the epic of a lifetime.

Only, it’s not quite. There’s plenty of disagreement over what happened to the film in post-production: some guessed that Weinstein forced Scorsese to cut an hour from the film, while Scorsese and Weinstein both say it was all a matter of working together to find a cut that worked. Some say Elmer Bernstein’s score was rejected by Weinstein for Howard Shore’s more conventional one, others say Scorsese never felt it quite fit the film (I say Scorsese’s coked-up late-70s plan to have The Clash do the soundtrack still sounds incredible). Whatever the case, Gangs was well received when it was finally released in 2002, but for all of its acclaim it doesn’t quite rank among the great Scorsese films.

1862: Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), an Irish-American street punk, returns to the Five Points in New York, looking for revenge. Sixteen years earlier, Amsterdam’s Irish-Catholic father Priest (Liam Neeson) was killed in a gang war by rabid Protestant nativist Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill has now taken over crime in New York, and everyone answers to him, even powerful corrupt political “Boss” William Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Amsterdam finds his way into Bill’s gang, becoming a right-hand man and son to Bill even as he plans his vengeance. He also falls in love with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and Bill’s former ward.

It’s worth noting how impressive Gangs of New York purely in terms of scale. Most of the film was shot in Italy standing in for New York, where Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti could rebuild New York as it was in the mid 19th century. Reportedly, Scorsese’s friend George Lucas visited the set and joked that all of this could have been done in a computer, but it counts that Scorsese and company took the effort to rebuild the world. This film looks fantastic, every tactile detail and bit of bric-a-brac giving us a look at a lost world like few films since the days of D.W. Griffith. That the film lost Best Art Direction at the Oscars to Chicago, which doesn’t even come close to capturing the feeling of its city, is totally absurd to me.

That said, the production design is hardly the only impressive technical detail. Scorsese reteamed with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus for the first time since The Age of Innocence, and Ballhaus’s touch is perfect for the film. I’m always struck by the opening twenty minutes, where we’re introduced to the underground city the Irish live in as Scorsese and Ballhaus emphasize the shadows, the dirt and the earthy tones of their poor home in a series of magnificent tracking and crane shots. When they finally reach the top and kick open the doors, the contrast to the bright grey skies and white snows is incredible. They’ve come to the surface for air, but it’s a cold and unforgiving world, and they’re about to go to war.

With regards to the editing, it’s not necessarily Thelma Schoonmaker’s cleanest work (though I’ll get to that later), but it does work in at least one major area: the emphasis on violence. Scorsese had made plenty of bloody films before, but the world of Gangs of New York is particularly brutal, filled with knifings and beatings, and Schoonmaker’s work really makes it hit, whether it’s with match cuts of men falling in battle or cutting away from a blow to the head, as if it were too horrible to witness. There’s also some brilliant cross-cutting in the third act, as the film goes back and forth between the chaos of the New York riots and the warring armies of the natives and the Irish, or between Amsterdam and Bill making their prayers for victory. It’s essential because it’s a film about how the city, and, by turns, America, was borne out of violence and conflict as much as it was out of ideals.

Scorsese also assembles an impressive cast for the eclectic New York milieu: Neeson as the righteous Priest; John C. Reilly and Gary Lewis as a pair of Irish-Catholics turned traitors; Broadbent as a political figure who’ll side with the winning side if it means it’ll get him enough votes. Brendan Gleeson is particularly effective as Walter “Monk” McGinn, a man who first seems mercenary, then sinister, then shrewd as we learn of how he’s hidden his hope for his people.

But there’s really no denying that the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, who came out of five years of semi-retirement to play Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. Day-Lewis is known for his next-level immersive method acting, and it helps ground a character who could be over-the-top otherwise. To some degree, Day-Lewis is over-the-top, but never in a way that feels out of character. Bill is introduced in a shot that pans up from his boots to his face, then does a series of cuts to his Eagle-encrusted glass eye. It’s an appropriately mythic introduction for the charismatic, violent man, by different points sophisticated or brutal, filled with virulent hatred for non “natives”, a man whose word in the Five Points is the word of God.

Bill is as evil as Richard III, but there’s also some measure of principle and honor in him. Sure, he’s a hateful, racist son of a bitch, but he respects, even loves Priest Vallon for his strength, his leadership, and his belief in his people. In an unforgettable monologue, the patriotic monster is wrapped in an American flag, and the sadness in his voice is palpable as he talks about Priest’s death, about it meaning the loss of the last great rival. Bill believes he and his ancestors fought for ownership of America, and what’s distressing to him isn’t just that foreigners are taking it over, but that they’re taking over without having to fight for it, and that he’s slowly losing what he’s got.

It makes sense that he’d take someone as scrappy as Amsterdam under his wing – he sees something honorable in him, even without knowing who the boy really is. When Amsterdam does make his move against Bill, he’s furious that it was a “sneak-thief” move rather than a bold one, given who he comes from. And then, as Amsterdam becomes a leader for his people and challenges Bill to a true battle, there’s a shift in this terrifying man’s view of Amsterdam, a real sense of respect for him even as he plans to kill him.

But this is all about Bill’s perspective, and he’s only a supporting character (the Lead Actor nominations notwithstanding). What about our hero? Leonardo DiCaprio is normally a charismatic presence – he had given great performances before (This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and, yes, Titanic), he gave a great performance that same year in Catch Me if You Can, and his ongoing collaboration with Scorsese has yielded three of his best performances (cross our fingers that The Wolf of Wall Street makes four).

So it’s bizarre to see DiCaprio as such a non-presence in his first film with Scorsese. There are seeds in Amsterdam of what DiCaprio would do much more effectively in The Departed as a deeply conflicted character, one whose lessons under the wing of surrogate father Bill should leave him wracked with guilt. But whether DiCaprio’s not comfortable playing a tough guy yet or he’s intimidated by Day-Lewis (who stays completely in character during every shoot), something’s not working here, and he mostly comes off as callow and dull. You could also take issue with his shaky early Irish-American accent, but really, that’d be a minor concern if the rest of the performance was strong.

DiCaprio’s not the only major player who gives a dud performance: Scorsese reportedly cast Sarah Michelle Gellar as Jenny, then tried to get Sarah Polley when Gellar dropped out, but was convinced to cast a big star. Either likely would have been better: Diaz is badly miscast, without any of the spitfire energy that would make Jenny more than the blandly pretty love interest that she turns out to be. Whenever the film focuses on her love scenes with DiCaprio, the film sags under the weight of two performers who aren’t working on their own terms and who have no chemistry together. It’s a major liability.

But that alone wouldn’t keep the film from being great, if flawed. What’s odd about Gangs of New York is that it doesn’t have the propulsive narrative energy that comes with most Scorsese films. The revenge storyline (highly reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) could be positively Shakespearean, but it never feels like the through line it should be. Part of that falls on DiCaprio’s weak performance, but the film also has a problem of seeming more interested in sidetracks and snapshots of 19th century corruption and violence than the central story.

It’s easy to get lost in the colorful milieu, but the film gets a little too lost. Its portrait of exploitation of the Irish, either by the Civil War or by people like Boss Tweed, is always fascinating, but it never really builds a narrative shape as it should. Maybe it was a matter of a longer cut that gave the narrative more room to breathe, or that emphasized the story more than the background. As it is, there’s more than a handful of transcendent moments – Bill’s murder of Monk; the rituals that Bill, Amsterdam, and Priest go through before battle, tying together the themes of violence and religion; Bill’s death in a chaotic battle; the final shot, a time lapse that shows the graves of Priest and Bill forgotten in modern New York. But those moments and the fascinating world of the film add up to an often brilliant but frustrating work: a not-quite-great film.

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