Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-Eight

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#38 — Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
There is a contingent of film observers that met Gangs of New York with the perspective that Martin Scorsese’s professional narrative had eclipsed that of his films. Gangs wasn’t about the bands of warring parties in New York City’s Five Points district around the time of the American Civil War, it was about Miramax head Harvey Weinstein’s rumored meddling with Scorsese’s cut, the exec’s fabled proclivity for aggressive editing room pruning supposedly brought to bear on arguably the finest director to work within his stable. It wasn’t a vast, complex story about villainy and revenge, it was Scorsese’s calculated attempt to secure the Academy Award that previously eluded him, the film representing a pandering embrace of the sort of epic moviemaking that had long held sway over Oscar voters’ hearts. As the inside stories of the movie business were increasingly traded across multiple media platforms and weekly box office tallies were reported with the urgency of football scores and election results, the work of a consummate filmmaker began to get lost. The attention was riveted on the backstory to the expense of the story itself.

All that chatter ignores that Gangs of New York, on its own terms, is fantastic: bold and audaciousness and fearless and resonant and memorable. In short, it’s all the things we always hope films will be when the lights go dim. It is a film brimming with wild activity, ideas and wonderment around every turn of the reel. Scorsese throws everything he can into it. There’s political intrigue and twisty religious commentary; raw violence and vibrant music; sweaty sexuality and precarious friendship; a vast city at its overgrown birth and experiencing one of many potential deaths; knife throwing and garishly decorative glass eyes. Just when you think he’s included everything except marauding elephants, here come the marauding elephants. It is the sight and sound and feel of a gifted filmmaker with an imagination that moves so fast that words come out of him at twice the speed of normal men getting the chance to let that imagination bend and burst and manifest itself fully on a wide, wondrous screen.

His grand ambition is met by the actor he cast as the snarling, vicious, powerful city crime lord Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. Scorsese had worked with Daniel Day-Lewis once before, in the period drama The Age of Innocence. There, Day-Lewis was a model of restraint, quietly clawing into the refined, internalized agony of his lovelorn character, passion thwarted by a society that had a rigid place settled for him. Here, he’s quite the opposite, acting with a spectacularly unhinged emotiveness. Every gesture and expression has a sweep and sway to it, every line is delivered in such a way that it brings out its juiciness. It’s a performance that hard to defend to anyone who would describe it as overacting, except to note that its broadness and uncalibrated bravado works so perfectly, adding to the danger of this dangerous man. Like many of Day-Lewis’s finest moments, it provides a riveting new definition of actorly inventiveness.

Any suspicions about the period setting and the saga-friendly scope soothing Scorsese’s dark daring are resoundingly refuted by the film itself. The violence is as brutal as any he’s ever committed to film, fully appropriate since he’s depicting a time when the streets were at their meanest. There are no rules that can’t be fully shredded at the barbaric imperative of men who’ve decided they can claim their power and position through any means at their disposal. Backroom deals can easily be vetoed by street-level brawls, and the spoils are fully available to anyone with the unrestrained willingness to take them. It is fully in line with the career-long thesis that Scorsese has constructed, about the uncivilized nature of humanity when the basest instincts are allowed to surface unchecked. For all the superiority of American nationalism, it is no different here. Indeed, what else could be expect from a nation forged from rebellion? Scorsese allows for a unvarnished version of the American story, the ugliness and anger intermingled with pride and patriotism.

Through it all, his filmmaking is unimpeachable. The frame is filled to bursting, every cent of his uncommonly large budget visible on the screen. The sets and costumes are beautifully rendered, but also worn enough to reflect the battering of a large, hard-living population. Scorsese’s camera savors it, pulling back to capture it all, and occasionally taking it in through extended tracking shots that put the mad bustle and sprawling disarray in proper perspective. It is headlong and yet controlled, a splendidly expansive vision miraculously honed into something that fits on little frames of thin film. It is the work of a master who has spent his entire career somehow making films that properly realize his outsized ambition. That’s the backstory that has some bearing on the final product bearing the title Gangs of New York.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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