Today’s Movie Monday film is a little unusual — it isn’t strictly based on a historical character, although it is set against a background of historical events and contains many characters who did exist. Possibly. And today’s Movie Monday is a little unusual as well, in that it isn’t a review in the conventional sense: it’s mostly just me thinking out loud about this movie and its relationship to the source material.
Anyway, the film is an adaptation of a book by Herbert Asbury, which is all well and good. Asbury’s book is sensational reading, even if it is a little, well, sensational. Heck, that’s the best thing about it. I have already discussed its wonderful collection of scoundrelly gangster names. But it’s not a work of narrative, not really — it has, I guess you could say, a story, but it’s really all about a particular era in the history of New York, or a particular theme over several eras. It was written at a time when gangs were on the mind of Americans generally, but it isn’t any kind of analysis, just a collection of exciting tales.
He drew the weapon, levelled it in the hollow of his elbow and pulled the trigger. But his aim was poor and he shot himself in the arm, whereupon he screeched and fell to the floor. There he fired again, striking Poole in the leg. Bill the Butcher staggered forward under the impact of the bullet, clutching at Baker with outstretched arms. But the latter dodged, and as Poole fell heavily to the floor Baker drew a pistol and placed it against his chest.
“I guess I’ll take you, anyhow,” said Baker.
And all that sort of thing!
The film therefore tries to impose a human narrative where one is lacking, creating a protagonist in the form of Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Irishish son of noted hardcase Liam Neeson, who gets murdered by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Amsterdam seeks revenge on his dad’s murderer, courts feisty thief Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), forms his own gang, etc., etc. And then there’s the 1863 Draft Riots and our hero goes to California.
Along the way, there are hell of knife fights.
It’s not a bad film, but it’s a mess in a lot of ways, and part of that mess is that director Martin Scorsese wants it all to mean something, which it does insofar as anything does, but it’s hard to see how it means what he wants it to mean.
Partly this is because the Draft Riots aren’t a really good way to illustrate the film’s central conflict. In the film, Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher decide to settle their differences with a big gang fight, only to find that the riots break out around them in a big chaotic battle sequence. But they aren’t necessarily rioters themselves, although they could be — we see Bill portrayed as anti-war early in the film, while DiCaprio represents poor Irish New Yorkers, who were among those who felt most threatened by free blacks and did most of the rioting. Scorsese gives Amsterdam a black pal to make sure we won’t mistake him for a racist (and hey, it’s Larry Gilliard Jr from The Wire, so that’s nice). But still, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be on this guy’s side — or even if we are. And when the smoke clears, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a catharsis or what. Like, there’s definitely been a lot of noise and shouting and explosions, and the personal story of Amsterdam vs Bill is resolved, and our hero has got the girl and so on, but I don’t know why that merits a big stirring song and a time-lapse shot of New York being built.
The historical Bill the Butcher, William Poole, was a nativist gangster and former boxer who was shot in 1855. The Old Brewery was a notorious slum, but it didn’t look like Goblintown from the Jackson Hobbit, it just looked like a big old building. Also it was gone by the war. I don’t even know if Nativism was a big thing in the 1860s — I think of it as something that happened mainly in the 1830s to 1850s, but I could be wrong. The Draft Riots are in Asbury’s book, because Asbury’s thesis is “gee whiz, New York has been a very violent place in the past and you people are acting like it’s a new thing.” But that doesn’t mean it’s the climax of some story about the assimilation of the Irish or something.
I suppose that this film is just an instance of the old history-movie problem; is this about the history, or is a story about the characters with history(ish) as a backdrop? If it’s about Amsterdam and Jenny and Bill, it’s just a crime drama and all these sweeping camera shots and the Bruce Springsteen song are woefully out of place. If it’s about the Draft Riots, it makes a hell of a mess of them.
But let me not be too critical. After all, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a hell of a good psychopath. More importantly, there are some amazing trousers in this movie.
And maybe if you’re going to make a movie of Asbury’s book — which is, after all, a mess of stories from different sources, more about colour than about accuracy or even point — “a hell of a mess” is the kind of movie you want to make.