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  Film Reviews: A Grittier, Dirtier Time: Gangs of New York  

Sunday, December 29
A Grittier, Dirtier Time: Gangs of New York
Smell that? That’s the smell of Oscar Season, my friends. Yes, the time where my movie-going will be upped to as many as five films a week in order to keep up with the nominations. “Gangs of New York,” has everything – an epic tale, period costuming, Martin Scorsese, and the presence of many top-notch actors. If that weren’t enough, the film is based on a book (always helps to be literary).

The film centers largely in an 1860’s New York as it was on the verge of becoming the teeming metropolis that NYC is today. This is a city that was receiving thousands of Irish immigrants every day, was attempting to form a basic government that would cover basic services for its citizens, where the Draft Riots were less than a year away and where addressing the needs of the poor were still somewhat up in the air.

Within this background, we have young Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has returned from the Hellsgate Reformatory for the sole purpose of avenging his father’s death at the hands of The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). I liken this story very much to a concept that Monty Python put forth in “The Life of Brian.” In a deleted scene from that film, there are several shepherds discussing the joys of sheep and shepherding in general…the entire time, they’re oblivious to the fact the Star of Bethlehem shines behind them. In the commentary, it is explained that they felt for every major moment in history, there were always people more wrapped up in, say, vacuuming their floors than in what was going on around them.

The 1860’s represent a very turbulent time in American history – one from which the burgeoning New York City was not immune. At the time, the Union Army was looking for recruits to send South. New York City was ripe for recruits. Fresh immigrants would receive two stamps - the first signifying their U.S. citizenship, the second signifying their rank as private in the army. For those that were already living in New York, the threat of an impeding draft loomed over the heads of all that could not afford $300 to release their names from the draft lists. For the very poor, $300 was an incomprehensible sum, so this offer was something that only applied to the wealthy.

To top off the war, New York City itself was largely concerned with becoming an actual metropolis. Competing fire departments regularly fought with one another as buildings burnt down around them – after all, it was about who would receive the commission for putting out the fire. Immigration was a hotly contested item, with the politicians supporting each individual that could vote as they got off the boat and locals calling for allowing the “Natives” to retain rights against the great unwashed stepping into their cities.

Beyond concerns of the city, we have Amsterdam and The Butcher worried about their respective pieces of the Five Points. The Butcher gained control over the Five Points when he killed Amsterdam’s father (Priest) in an infamous battle between The Natives and The Dead Rabbits. The Butcher represents the old guard…those that want things to stay the same as long as humanly possible. To The Butcher, change is that thing that can be avoided as long as we accept its dangers as irrefutable fact. Amsterdam merely wants what is his – a fight his father had proposed when he wanted immigrants to have a fair way to go in the city.

As with any epic, Amsterdam comes to find himself an adopted son of The Butcher (Amsterdam’s true identity is known only to a childhood friend who also works with The Butcher). As a petty thief with a creative edge, he wins The Butcher’s favor by stealing corpses and selling the bodies for medical research. The original intent was to get close enough to kill The Butcher quietly and on his own, but this plan becomes increasingly muddled as he grows closer to The Butcher and to Jennie, a woman with a complicated past when it comes to The Butcher. This eventually leads to a far more public battle where The Dead Rabbits are reborn and those held quiet for 16 years dare to rise up against the tyranny of The Butcher once again.

All the while, New York City and the nation deal with larger problems that will inevitably come crashing down on all of them at the most inopportune moment possible. For as much as one would like to care about their own problems while the world goes on around them, there will come a time when the problems of the many will eventually be on your own doorstep.

The Usual:

What it’s Worth: Full fare. It’s got everything that you could ever want. Rumor has it that this could well be Scorsese’s last film.

Annoying Theater Goer: The yappy couple behind us. I first gave up my perfect middle-of-the-theater, middle-of-the-row seats to get away from their idle chatter at the beginning of the film. When the Obvious-Thing-That-Must-Happen happens (see note regarding Amsterdam’s identity in review), I could hear them trying to work out what had just happened between the two of them quite plainly (despite my now inferior seats). A loud “SHHHHH!” failed to immediately silence them – after all, what is everyone else’s movie-going experience when you’re a complete moron that’s talked too much during the rest of the movie to be able to keep up with an expected turn of events in the film?

Main Reason To See This Film: Daniel Day-Lewis lives in semi-retirement much to the loss of the movie-going public. His portrayal of The Butcher is beyond amazing – he’s captivating, evil, frightened, boisterous and respectful all at once.

Main Reason Not To See This Film: For those with a low squeamish-factor, it would be good to remind that bludgeoning was the murder of choice in the 1860’s. Even being shot by a muzzle-loader wasn’t as neat as one might imagine.

MPAA Rating: R

Nudity: Yes.

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