Gangs of New York (2002)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson
Martin Scorsese has the hardest time getting love from award voters. Scorsese’s best early work was likely too violent, as Taxi Driver lost to the equally great Rocky and Raging Bull lost to Ordinary People. Goodfellas’ loss in 1990 to Dances with Wolves is probably Scorsese’s most well-known snub, but it shouldn’t be shocking that The Academy wasn’t jumping to award such a depraved film. Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator was very good, but Million Dollar Baby was basically guaranteed the Oscar that year. The Departed finally put a Best Director award in Scorsese’s hand, along with Best Picture.
But for my money, the worst loss Scorsese — and movie buffs everywhere — suffered was in 2003. Chicago won Best Picture, and The Pianist took home the other major awards likes Best Director and Best Actor. Meanwhile the best movie made that year, and one of my all-time favorite films, Gangs of New York got bupkis.
Set in the late-1800s, Gangs of New York is about Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young who comes home to the New York slums seeking to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson). The man who killed his father, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), runs the neighborhood with a tight, deadly grip. It’s a bloody and entertaining tale.
As with all Scorsese films the cinematography and camera work are top-notch. His patented wide-angle tracking shots fully capture the elaborate construction that makes up the “Five Points” neighborhood; it’s the best set pieces he’s ever had. The costumes are outdone only by the colorful characters that inhabit them. And did I mention it’s violent?
Day-Lewis gives easily the scariest performance of his career as the one-eyed, meat-carving madman. He looms large in every scene, and his calm, confident demeanor plays perfectly off DiCaprio’s nervousness.
One of the biggest themes of Gangs of New York is immigration. Bill the Butcher is a proud American-born man who hates immigrants enough to through stones at them as they come off ships in the New York harbor. It’s very much a relevant topic today, and it’s clearly a subject of interest to Scorsese, who is a first-generation American. The film also speaks to class warfare, political corruption, and father-son relationships. So there’s more than just the death and sex and violence.