Monday, June 25, 2012

Gangs of New York. A-

Gangs of New York may contain some obvious narrative elements, and its structure may be rugged, but it still ends up being quite awesome thanks to some bold choices by Martin Scorsese. We've seen Scorsese compromise some of his energetic filmmaking in his historical epics, and one might have expected him to do the same with this film. Yet in the end it's one of his most surprising pictures, a movie that pulls the viewer through a familiar story pattern only to jolt their expectations with scenes of explosive directorial courage. This of course starts with the opening battle, in which Scorsese dashes traditional cinematic warfare techniques for a bloody, visceral, stylized skirmish. He then introduces a very Dickinsian plot involving a young Irishman (Leonardo DiCaprio), who allows himself to be taken under the wing of his father's killer (Daniel Day Lewis) with revenge as his end. Day Lewis plays Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, a ruthless, persuasive mobster who rules the streets of 19th century New York. It's a powerhouse performance. The Butcher will only climb through the ranks of great movie villains as time goes by and Scorsese's work becomes more and more treasured. Day Lewis, in typical fashion, makes Bill dominate every scene he's in, but it's extra effective here because the character in the story also fully controls his environment. Movie villains are usually present simply as movie villains, filling their role as such. Day Lewis makes Bill something more, a presence that almost transcends what an antagonist can be. And he's not terribly complex, either. With the exception of a few fascinating scenes (one involving a slight salute to the DiCaprio's father), he's mostly a one-sided character. This is a case where acting (as well as physical features) are more interesting than the character the actor is portraying. Many of the scenes in Gangs of New York that I would call great cinema concern Day Lewis, so I suppose my endorsement of this film is mainly due to him and Scorsese's recognition that he really is the anchor of the film. 

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