The Butcher and His Boy

Scorseses Gangs of New York

Over the years, Scorsese's work has become famous for its dazzling technique, but here his visual style lacks its customary pop. Perhaps he's slightly overwhelmed by production designer Dante Ferretti's simulacrum of old New York, which achieves an exhausting richness of detail: It's a swirl of churning streets, Chinese operas, dingy hop houses, political offices filled with caged birds, fancy uptown billiards rooms, vast multileveled tenements whose missing walls make them look like Olympian beehives. Virtually every shot contains something enjoyable to look at (Sandy Powell's costumes are vaudeville Dickens), but at times Scorsese seems too in love with his fabulous sets. Who cares about the façade of a whorehouse if Diaz's Jenny is going to dwindle into a ministering adornment in the third hour? Who wouldn't gladly swap Scorsese's pointless use of slow-mo for more attention to nuances of character? Near the end, Cutting commits a murder that profoundly violates everything we know about his strict moral code, yet the script seems not to notice. Like so many long-nurtured projects—think of Polanski's Pirates or Coppola's Tucker—the movie feels stillborn from its extended labor.

Then again, what ultimately gives Gangs of New Yorkits power is less its storytelling than its grand, bracingly radical vision of American history. Like Hugh Hudson in his unfairly reviled Revolution, Scorsese reminds us that our freedoms were won in the streets by common people, and that these freedoms did not come cheap. The movie evokes the overwhelming cruelty of a 19th-century America in which millions of Northerners hated Lincoln's obsession with "niggers," Irish immigrants worked themselves to death for pennies in sweatshops, the poor were forced to become Civil War cannon fodder while the rich paid $300 a head to avoid conscription, high society practiced its lethal niceties with supreme politesse (as Scorsese chronicled in The Age of Innocence) and Boss Tweed preached his homegrown version of realpolitik: "You can always hire one half of the poor to kill off the other half."

All these social forces come to a head-on collision in Gangs of New York's explosive climax, in which Scorsese's panoptic vision of the tribalized city comes close to achieving the richness he's been striving for since the opening minutes. Even as the Dead Rabbits and the Nativists begin yet another headlong confrontation, anti-draft rioters rampage through the streets of upper Manhattan, attacking the rich and lynching blacks; Union soldiers fire indiscriminately into the crowds, slaughtering anyone unlucky enough to be in range; and the politicians calculate, as always, how to turn all this death and destruction to electoral advantage. These 1863 Draft Riots were the most devastating in American history, yet—caught up in their personal duel—Amsterdam Vallon and William Cutting continue their blood feud, oblivious that their small, local battle is being drowned out by the cymbal clash of history.

In quieter days, Bill the Butcher once sat by Amsterdam's bedside and predicted the end of the world he held dear. "Civilization," he intoned sadly, "is crumbling." What he did not foresee, but what Scorsese's final images make clear, is that modern America was forged in a cataclysm of rage, chaos, bloodshed and dreams.

GANGS OF NEW YORK was directed by MARTIN SCORSESE; written by JAY COCKS, STEVEN ZAILLIAN and KENNETH LONERGAN; and produced by MICHAEL OVITZ, BOB WEINSTEIN and RICK YORN. Check the Calendar's movie guide through the holidays for show times.

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