'Gangs' looks into the dark aspects of early America

by Dennis Piszkiewicz


Our history teachers told us that America, especially New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was a melting pot where the peoples of many nations struggled through adversity to happily merge in the formation of one nation. Martin Scorsese, who has directed grim pieces of Americana like 'Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull,' and 'Casino,' tells a very different story in his new film, 'The Gangs of New York.'

It is an arresting epic that gives a new twist to the old myth about a pivotal period of American history. It is also a sordid and depressing story about how a group of people living in the melting pot committed crimes to protect what little they had and to dominate those different from them.

As the movie opens, a gang of Irish immigrants who call themselves the Dead Rabbits prepare for battle with the reigning gang called the Natives for control of the impoverished Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan. It is a protracted, brutal battle fought with knives, clubs and cleavers that leaves the winter snow stained red and covered with dead and wounded.

The leader of the Natives, Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting, played by Daniel Day Lewis, kills the leader of the Dead Rabbits while the Irishman's son watches. Sixteen years later, in 1862, the son, Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, emerges from a reformatory and returns to Five Points to take revenge on his father's killer.

The story wanders the filthy streets and colorful dives of Five Points, where the thieves, thugs and crooked politicians plot against each other to control their pathetic little hell. In the background, the nation is destroying itself in its Civil War. Ships arrive in New York harbor to unload coffins of those killed in action, and conscripts, many of them poor or just immigrated, climb on board for their journey to death.

The film is about greed, power and violence. There is no nobility here. The only character who understands the self-destructive stupidity of it all is Jenny Everdeane, Vallon's girlfriend, played by Cameron Diaz.

The movie is less about the characters than about what some native-born and immigrant poor did to get ahead in America. Scorsese's gangs belong to loosely knit organizations, prototypes of the Italian gangs that in the 20th century became the Mafia. There must have been some honest, hard-working people living in New York and America in the mid-19th century, but Scorsese did not find them.

This is not a feel-good film. It is an unsentimental and visually stunning expedition into a little known corner of American history. It is worth the price of a ticket, if you have a stomach for it.

Thanks to Shaolin !