Sunday, 12 April 2015
Blindspot: Gangs of New York (2002)
I won't go on the record to say that this one is my favorite Blindspot so far, and I will also confess it was not one I obtained under the most pleasant circumstances. It happened when I was in college, back when I was still collecting films by Lynch and Cronenberg. At the time, both directors proved extremely elusive, and for whatever reason it was very hard to find films by Lynch (with the exceptions of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., though Lost Highway appears to have since become easier to obtain). I'd just figured out how to use my debit card and I was having some trouble controlling how much I'd spend at a time on films. Adding to that, because of how frustrating it was locating films by either director, I started to find other targets to search for in between. This came from Martin Scorsese's crime films.
Gangs of New York was one I picked up for no real reason other than because I'd enjoyed some of Scorese's other films while I was also buying Lost Highway and Inland Empire. I had no real reason to buy it at the time, and for a few years it sat in the drawer, probably out of personal shame. I'm not proud of those days, and while I still struggle sometimes with saving money I have since made a more concerted effort to avoid spending recklessly on films. Still, a few films remain in my collection from incidents like this one (another film on my Blindspot list, Atonement, was also obtained through similar circumstances). That naturally made it perfect material for the 2015 Blindspot Challenge.
When people think of the 19th century, the images that often come to mind are those of upper-class Victorian England. I'm talking about the fancy houses, the men in suits, ties, and top hats, women in elegant dresses. Typically the men are in business or some respectable career, smoke thick cigars, and like to drink tea. The "Victorian gentleman" is itself one of many stereotypes commonly associated with the English people. What many do not understand is that the world was far more complicated than that, and what we get here is another side to that same era. This is arguably the greatest strength displayed by Gangs of New York, as it was interesting to see this angle normally reduced to the background. Instead the lower class is placed front and center, and while I can't be 100% certain of its historical authenticity, it certainly makes for an interesting world.
It is the mid-19th century, and the American Civil War has just begun. It is a dark time for the American working class of New York, who live in a town torn apart by crime and prejudice. Every day thousands of Irish immigrants arrive in America only to be met with hate from the so-called "Natives" who through backwards thinking actually have a range of outrageous assumptions about the new arrivals that sadly weren't too uncommon for the time. At the same time, the society of New York has been split into various "tribes" in the form of gangs in constant conflict with each other. The most powerful of these gangs is led by a nasty man known as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, who has eliminated most of the competing gangs and even bought out some of the authorities (and is also extremely vocal about his bigoted worldviews).
Also thrown into the mix is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of a gang leader (Liam Neeson) killed by Cutting fifteen years earlier. Amsterdam is not pleased with the actions of Cutting, but manages to find a place in the latter's gang and works his way to being second in command. However, despite all outward appearances, Amsterdam is still loyal to his Irish heritage, and plots revenge against Cutting. Meanwhile, he also finds an unlikely friendship and eventual romance with a young Irish thief named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who proves to be quite talented and a valuable ally. However, in the end, it is left open whether any change has really happened, with the ending montage suggesting that modern New York is not that much different.
One thing I will note I was pleasantly surprised by was the general moral ambiguity that came with this story. The film makes a point of highlighting early on just how messed up a world the characters are living in, with several very real issues for the period. These included situations like rivalries developing between early fire departments, something that actually happened quite often and caused a lot of trouble (two different groups would show up at the same emergency, and then get distracted fighting over which one gets to put out the fire). The racism and backwards thinking, like the various characters who claim that the Irish and people of colour are "stealing jobs" from white men, is absurd today but also not unusual for the 19th century.
The main character himself is not so much likable as interesting, but it helped that he was never fully portrayed as being the good guy. He may have had some sympathetic goals but on several occasions his methods are called into question and it is never totally certain if he is doing the right thing (this calls to mind similar vigilante themes explored in Scorsese's earlier film Taxi Driver). Cutting also makes a decent antagonist, though sometimes his mustache seems to be a distraction from the overall performance. The rest of the supporting cast do okay as well, though there aren't very many who particularly stand out.
One exception to that rule is Everdeane, who I will have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by. My initial expectations of the film included her simply being a love interest and motivation for Vallon, and while that was partially true it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that. Writing strong female characters into historical movies is note easy, especially in a period like the Victorian Era, but here they really pulled it off. She's a thief but she is also smart and capable of looking after herself (and indeed, saves herself on multiple occasions, as well as Vallon at least once), all while maintaining the illusion of being an "ideal" 19th century girl.
Another area where I can definitely give this film credit is its pacing. The full movie is almost three hours long, but it actually moves fairly quickly. I don't recall any specific point at which I felt a scene was going on longer than it needed to, and I could see it was trying to use the long runtime to its advantage. The only trouble was that there is a lot going on in that time. Maybe not quite as much as a movie like The Godfather or Scorsese's later film The Departed, but still a lot. The central narrative: that of Vallon, Everdeane, and Cutter, is pretty straight forward and easy to comprehend, but there are plenty of other characters and sub-plots that can be easy to lose track of.
I won't say that Gangs of New York is my favorite Blindspot so far, but it proved to be an interesting experience, and I'm certainly glad I watched it. It has its flaws but it is a compelling story with some amazing period detail that shows a side of history often overlooked. I'd recommend checking it out if you like Scorsese or want a good crime film, and even with the long running time it hardly feels like it's that long. If I were to label Scorsese's best crime films, I would probably choose either Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, but Gangs of New York is a reasonable second or third option, and I will say that it is definitely better than Raging Bull.