Scorsese says the inspiration from GANGS OF NEW YORK came from, like so many things, his childhood. As a child in Little Italy, Manhattan, he would notice elements of the neighborhood far more aged than the rest, notably tombstones. “I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us. As I began to understand this, it fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?” he would wonder.
GANGS OF NEW YORK and the vision behind it really snap into clarity in the phenomenal ending shot. The essential thrust of the story, the formation of society, New York, as we know them, that all works splendidly. But the specifics in getting there are sometimes rough, and there’s a kind of weightlessness to how cultural feuds stay static and unvaried over multiple decades. Much was clearly going on in New York at the time, and more devotion to the specifics and historicity (perhaps rather than the love story) may have built up the ending and essential theme better.
Daniel Day-Lewis is magnetic, but it’s Jim Broadbent’s Boss Tweed that really represents the villainy in the film, a man of such dumbfounding corruption that the negotiation of society and ‘democracy’ amongst the New York feuds feels undercut before it even begins. DiCaprio is not give great material to work with, as his feud with Bill the Butcher feels like a somewhat arbitrary narrative thread to craft the theme and history of the film around. The principles and politics of the feuding groups felt more in tune with that, yet they weren’t expanded nearly as much as were the theatrics around DiCaprio’s character being a double agent of sorts.
The mud and muck and production design of the film are engaging enough for it to stick in the memory as an alternate American history rarely depicted on film, but too often does the film not engage with its best ideas. Three and a half throwing knives, and a bought vote.