This edition of Film Forum was originally published at Christianity Today on December 19, 2002.

Gangs of New York is director Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated film about an uprising of Irish immigrants against a gang called “Nativists” who seek to drive them out of Civil-War-era New York City.

Leonardo Dicaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a tough young Irishman who returns to a poor New York neighborhood called The Five Points in order to avenge the death of his father (played in the prologue by Liam Neeson.) Vallon’s father died a principled Irishman defending the rights of Irish immigrants to live in peace on American soil. His murderer was William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), also known as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of an immigrant-hating gang. Vallon’s revenge quest gets complicated when he finds himself adopted as the Butcher’s apprentice in all things devious and violent. The stakes are raised higher when he falls in love with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and con woman who is dangerously close to the Butcher’s cold cruel heart.

This story would seem predictable. But when the inevitable confrontation finally arrives, Scorsese pulls the rug out from under us. We realize the film is not about something as frivolous as a blood rivalry between two men. It is about the consequences that occur when the rich turn a blind eye to the poor.

The violent clashes that bloody these filthy streets are symptoms of poverty in the big city. In the 1860s, immigrant men were drafted into Civil War duty as soon as they stepped off the boats, even if they were not supporters of Lincoln. Meanwhile, rich men could buy their way out of the draft for about $300. Seeds were planted for distrust of the government, and prejudices that deepened during that time continue today. This deep civil unrest sparked a fire that became the Draft Riots, an outburst of rage and violence that threw New York City into a Civil War of its own, the bloodiest riots in American history. Scorsese concludes his film with a suggestion that the oppression of the poor by the wealthy continues today.

Dicaprio makes Vallon a charismatic savior, rallying the Irish to his cause; but alas, he is only a savior by violence, far too willing to compromise his innocence in order to achieve his goals. Thus, the price of vengeance grows costly indeed.

Dicaprio’s solid work pales in comparison with the spectacular return of Daniel Day-Lewis. His sneering, roaring, monstrous performance as the Butcher will remind you of Robert DeNiro in his prime.

The supporting cast is effective as well, featuring strong turns from John C. Reilly (Magnolia), Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart.) Cameron Diaz holds her own in the midst of such formidable talent.

The script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan shows a close study of the dialects, accents, and prejudices of the day. The cast sinks their teeth into the script with the same enthusiasm they would give to Shakespeare. In fact, the film resembles the sort of bloodstained epic Shakespeare would have written had he been a student of American history.

Gangs is a complicated film, both great and deeply flawed, that plays like a dirge for the poor who still suffer from the neglect of the rich and powerful. Regardless of the creative liberties taken by Scorsese in telling his tale, it’s the most shocking and troubling film about American history I’ve ever seen. (My review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics have yet to offer reviews, but mainstream critics are already debating the pros and cons of this long-awaited production. Rumors of trouble between the director and the studio have led to debate about the difference between this version and an earlier, much longer version of the film. Columnist Dave Poland mourns the absence of Scorsese’s original vision from this abbreviated edition.

Richard Schickel (TIME) is quite impressed: “Today when audiences go into the past, they want fantasy. They’re not looking to pay for history lessons. Thus Gangs may be the epic’s last gasp. If so, it is a gasp that sings, howls, like a grand tenor at an Irish wake.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), who offers an interview with Scorsese, claims, “No movie has ever depicted American poverty and squalor in this way.”

David Denby (New Yorker) is not satisfied. “What’s on the screen [is] grisly and heavy-spirited. Somewhere along the way, Scorsese’s conception turned vague and then got pickled in excessive production values.” But he praises Day-Lewis’s acting as an event in itself. “[The Butcher is] a consciously theatrical monster, and Day-Lewis — an actor playing an actor — returns to performing with a glee that he’s never shown before.”

from Film Forum, 01/02/03

Gangs of New York, which Film Forum covered in detail two weeks ago, continues to irritate and infuriate religious press critics with its graphic violence. Further, some were not pleased to see American history portrayed with such rough edges.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is one of the few praising its achievement: “While DiCaprio does a fine job playing the conflicted Amsterdam, this film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis who presents one of the most complex and richly shaded villains in recent memory. [The filmmakers’] vision of what Manhattan might have looked like over 150 years ago is magnificently realized.”

Simon Remark (Hollywood Jesus) also raves: “No other filmmaker has looked at the human condition and the inner struggle between flesh and spirit quite like Martin Scorsese. … Scorsese again looks at the human condition and the strongest of human emotions: love and hate. Scorsese again proves to be one of the most significant, profound filmmakers of our time.”

Others are too battered by the film’s violent subject matter. Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) “With all the characters so vicious, the story has little emotional resonance. Despite the film’s belabored ultra-realism, it fails to be dramatically stirring. Instead of a story about the immigrant experience in 19th-century New York, it seems more about butchery for its own sake and the love of slaughter.” Movieguide’s critic says the film is “a bloody, dark, depressing, hopeless depiction of ‘eye-for-an-eye’ violence, torture, and cruelty, plus graphic sexual immorality and nudity. It is not an American History film, but a revisionist political treatment that attacks faith, God, and America. This movie reaches new lows in bloodletting.” Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) “Scorsese somewhat informs us, but then he beats the crud out of us.” Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says simply, “If you don’t want to see a bloody, violent movie, then don’t go see Gangs.”

Will Johnson (Relevant) says, “Beautifully shot, wonderfully orchestrated, and skillfully pieced together, Gangs … is an awe-inspiring film. However, before the three hours pass, you can’t help but feel betrayed and cheapened.” He calls it “gratuitous, lengthy and unbelievable. To say that this movie’s conclusion was one of the most disappointing endings of all time is an understatement. I was angry and sad simultaneously.” Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) also calls it “perhaps the most impressive and ambitious disappointment in this year of ambitious cinematic disappointments. Shakespearean in aspiration, operatic in scope, spectacularly mounted, Gangs … is a remarkable cinematic effort. If only it were about something.”

But Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, “I walked away more grateful than ever for my cushy 21st century life. Today we thrive in a society governed by law and order to be envied by all other countries, and this movie makes one immensely grateful for that.”

Isaac’s sentiments seem to contradict the film’s conclusion, which suggests that the rich in America continue to thrive even as they continue to ignore the needs of the poor, both here and abroad. Thus we are forced to consider that the violent struggle between the rich and the poor is not over, and has in fact expanded, causing those beyond U.S. borders to rise up against the wealthy and powerful of this nation.