“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
New York City in the mid-19th century was a dark and dangerous place. You wouldn’t know that today from reading Transcendentalist essays, Little Women, or Edgar Allen Poe, all works of that time. We have these romanticized notions of what America was like for the waves of immigrants coming to the new world to seek fortune and a new life, but for most, it was a violent hell. No movie portrays this little corner of American history better than Gangs of New York. Directed by the extremely talented Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, this is a portrait of the volatile culture, the primitive politics, and the shocking violence of this time and place. It’s bloody and raw and almost oppressive in its adversity—but it’s also enthralling and very entertaining.
The story opens with a gang of Irish immigrants going to war with a gang of natives—Americans whose families came to America before the Revolutionary War. The natives win, and young Irish immigrant Amsterdam Vallon has to watch native gang leader Bill the Butcher kill his father, the leader of the Irish gang. Amsterdam swears to get revenge and spends his entire adolescent life preparing to kill Bill. When he’s released from reform school, Amsterdam seeks out Bill, who is now a powerful leader of several gangs. What follows is an intense game of cat and mouse involving politics, crime, religion, war, and just about every aspect of these early Americans’ lives.
If you get all of us together, we ain’t got a gang—we’ve got an army.
Gangs of New York shows us a world as well-developed as that of Harry Potter, and it’s nearly as foreign. It takes familiar pieces of the past, like the boats of immigrants pouring in regularly and even a villain with a top hat and waxed mustache, and shows the dark underbelly of what they were really like for many. From the opening scene to the closing, it feels like a different world, and you’ll really feel like you’re there. Scorsese brings out amazing performances from each of the actors, and they really become these early American characters—so much so that I didn’t even recognize Cameron Diaz until halfway through the movie. And you’ll get to see the small details of their lives just as readily as the huge events that push the movie forward. It’s crazy to think that this world is actually fairly modern history.
This film has great historical detail and emotional depth, but make no mistake—it will keep you on the edge of your seat. The tension is intense and ever-present, even when it has to come out through politics and public displays instead of raw violence, and the plot is more complex than most (although not especially hard to follow). The combination of all these things is a marvel. It will capture your interest, bring old history to life, make you feel for these characters, and keep you wondering about how it will all end. This is near-perfect entertainment.
Gangs of New York is an American classic, serving as a great counterpoint to 19th-century American literature as well as being great entertainment today. Scorsese is out in full force here, so it’s full of violence and language, and doesn’t skimp on sex either, earning this a hard R rating. But if the hard aspects of this film don’t turn you away, I’d highly recommend watching this.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Genres: crime, drama