In Gangs of New York, veteran filmmaker Martin Scorsese does an impeccable job of recreating New York City circa 1846-1863, highlighting a bloody, little known period of American history. It was a time when the civil war, anti-immigration sentiment, political corruption, poverty and religious differences mixed together to create a simmering stew that eventually boiled over into the anti-draft riots that nearly destroyed the city in 1863. Unfortunately, the tale of revenge that Scorsese sets against this rich historical backdrop is depicted with such excessive brutality and gore that the historical value of his story is nearly drowned by the amount of blood spilled in the telling.
The film opens with a gruesome gang battle for control of “Five Points,” an impoverished area of lower Manhattan that was a flashpoint for tensions between, “Nativists”—Anglos and Dutch who were born in America—and Irish immigrants who were arriving by the boatload each day. When Amsterdam, the young son of the Irish gang leader, sees his father cut down by Bill “the Butcher” Cuttings, ruthless leader of the Natives, he vows to come back one day for revenge.
Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to find Bill still ruling the area. Keeping his identity a secret, Amsterdam gains Bill’s trust, becoming an adopted son of sorts, all the while waiting for the ideal time to fulfill his vow. But when Amsterdam finally does make his move, Bill manages to turn the tables. Barely escaping with his life, Amsterdam eventually manages to resurrect his father’s old gang and put a final challenge to Bill’s rule of Five Points.
Martin Scorsese has long been celebrated for his ability to document the sordid side of life in graphic detail. However, this film is so brutal that it forces one to ponder wonder when such graphic depiction of violence begins to harm rather than help a story. Gangs of New York is an exceptionally well-made film that raises many interesting issues. But that fact will matter little to those who aren’t willing to wade through a river of blood in order to appreciate what it is trying to say.