Archive for January, 2003

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January 17, 2003

Gangs of New York

Martin Scorsese’s newest urban crime epic, Gangs of New York, is a sensational film insomuch that it is a grandiose, exaggerated spectacle. It’s also sloppy, confused and unsatisfying. Aside from reporting my delight with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, it’s difficult to describe what the movie is really about.

Perhaps I read too much about the film’s restructuring (here and here) before seeing it for the first time, but I do stand by my current opinion. The early scenes following Amsterdam’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) return to Five Points are disjointed and unsteady, while the last act is unfocused to the point of being a turn-off. Whatever climax could have come from Amsterdam and Bill’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) final confrontation is lost in the sudden roar of epic melodrama. I’m a history lover, but not at the expense of a good story. The tale we’d been struggling to enjoy through fine performances for two hours gets overwhelmed by a sudden surge of historical chaos. Characters die, the story ends and it’s all very unsatisfying. Instead of delivering a passionate, fiery finale, Gangs snuffs out the characters we’d followed and smothers the story it had been telling in favor of obvious and heavy-handed sentimentality. This is essentially the same game Titanic played, though that film used a historical disaster as the climactic backdrop for its personal stories instead of sinking them outright.

Gangs of New York works like a blunt instrument. As it is, the film plays out like an early Sam Raimi shocker. I would have preferred something more graceful, more precise. For a time in the middle hour or so, we get time to dwell on the performances and textures given to us. All that is book-ended by clumsy storytelling, needless cuts and rhythm-breaking crossfades, though. Instead of rising to an epic or emotional finale, Gangs stumbles through a confused ending. The sweeping themes which dominate the final reel swell and burst onto the screen in a grand and senseless fog. They should have been planted early on so we could watch them grow.