It begins, intimately, with an extreme close-up of eyes wide open. It ends, intimately, with an extreme close-up of an eye slowly shutting. Everything else in between is vast and hugely ambitious in Martin Scorsese’s magisterial, scrambled historical epic Gangs of New York.
The raised lids belong to Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the Dead Rabbits, a gang on 1846 New York’s Lower East Side in whose blood — they’re Irish and Catholic — courses the quickening immigrant vitality that is beginning to transform not only New York City but also all of young America. The falling lid covers an orb of glass with a pupil in the shape of a bald eagle, the patriotic affectation of William ”Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), leader of the anti-immigration, anti-Catholic gang that call themselves the Native Americans, a quick-tempered rabble that would keep out the hordes arriving daily if they could.
They try, but they can’t. Although Priest dies in the struggle — early, in a cinematic showdown that concentrates all of the director’s notions of human violence into one roaring circus of carnage — his son, who will grow up to call himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), will emerge to take his place and continue what his father began. The curtain is coming down on the Butcher’s isolationist kind. And all the fight they’ve got in them can’t fend off change.
That’s the thematic summary of ”Gangs,” told in a blink — New York’s (and America’s) past ceding violently to the future, shaping the character of the present. But summary doesn’t capture the hubbub and tumult of this dark, hectic, hard-born showpiece, a muddle splashed with bloody beauty as vivid as any Scorsese has ever given us. If I could convince myself that in its mess and untamed intensity, ”Gangs of New York” means to iterate the ungainly shape of the very history it recounts, then I’d be able to say this movie is towering and profound. Since I can’t — because it groans and lumbers over too many ruts of narrative didacticism and murky puddles of historical matter as often as it explodes with scenes of greatness — I’m stuck with calling it only (only!) intermittently extraordinary.
Perhaps what’s most extraordinary of all is that Daniel Day-Lewis was prevailed on to come out of self-imposed seclusion to chomp into the role of the Butcher with such savage gusto. The complicated and brilliant Day-Lewis makes all of old New York come alive; he’s the furnace that stokes the story, and he gives off real, exciting heat, even if he’s just standing in one of Sandy Powell’s fantastically circusy costumes (topped by the highest of high hats), cocking his dark head and hmmmpffing his ornate words in the sinewy, genuine accent of native old New York. Day-Lewis personified a very different kind of old New York for Scorsese in ”The Age of Innocence”; Gotham suits him and his passion for self-reinvention.
The Butcher rules the now-gone Lower Manhattan neighborhood called the Five Points with fear, showmanship, and a furious belief in the right of his dominion. And as he always does, Scorsese has some of his blackest fun staging scenarios in which class and power clash. Bill the Butcher is a murderous brute, and yet politicos (embodied by Jim Broadbent as the audaciously corrupt Boss Tweed) court him daintily. Likewise, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz, overmatched, through no fault of her own, by the better-drawn characters of her costars) is a talented con-artist pickpocket who can work uptown or down, charming unsuspecting wealthy gentlemen out of the goods in their fancy waistcoats. (In the tedious way of romantic subplots fastened onto historical dramas, Jenny must fall in love with Amsterdam sometime after picking his pocket.)
Every resident in the whole, grimy mosaic of Scorsese’s Olde Big Apple — the thieves and the reformers, the poor and the dirt-poor — knows how to needle the guy next to him. And yet that’s still not enough for this restless filmmaker. So wired is he to keep talking that the overfussed script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan jams the history of abolition and Union Army conscription and the Draft Riots of 1863 into the movie’s overloaded last stretch. (The sure sign of storytelling trouble: Amsterdam is suddenly called upon to provide a lot of explanatory voice-over.)
For all his symbolic importance as a young man raised in an orphans’ workhouse who hides his identity in adulthood to get closer to his sworn enemy, DiCaprio doesn’t have that much to do in ”Gangs of New York.” Returned to the place where his father died in order to avenge that death, Amsterdam is meant to be the embodiment of revolution — the forebear of modern New York. To use some of the historic idiom larded into the dialogue, he doesn’t have the sand for it. Scorsese? Now, he’s got sand to spare. He long wrestled with this big movie, fought over it, sometimes took blows for it, and kept on swinging. He’s a New York gang of one.