Scorsese’s long-delayed epic finally arrives on-screen … and it was worth the wait. This is a spacious, robust movie that grabs hold of us and doesn’t let go for nearly three hours. We begin in 1846 New York City, a kind of Wild West metropolis without any real sense of order, where the cultured citizens of Manhattan live hidden away from the dirty life on the streets around Five Points, which are ruled by a network of street gangs. It’s here that two groups of gangs face off against each other–the natives are led by the charismatic Bill Cutter (Day-Lewis) and the immigrants by Priest Vallon (Neeson). At the end of the battle, Vallon is dead and his young son Amsterdam is sent off to prison school. Then 16 years later, the now-grown Amsterdam (DiCaprio) comes back to get revenge by concealing his identity and working his way into Cutter’s gang. Along the way he meets old friends (Thomas, Gleeson, Lewis, Reilly) who are now in completely different places. He also falls in love with a local pickpocket-hooker (Diaz).
First of all, the film looks absolutely fantastic, with startlingly believable production design that gives us a remarkable insight into this period in America’s history — with the Civil War raging, racial tension at its peak and dissatisfaction with government on all levels. The city was a tinderbox waiting to explode, which is pretty much what happened in the horrific 1863 Civil War Draft Riots that give the film it’s jaw-dropping climax. Scorsese films this with his usual sure touch, catching both large and small details and bringing both the characters and the city to life. The script is a bit more problematic; the personal stories are very strong, but the bigger picture is somewhat lost. These issues are very much at the top of the agenda today, and yet a meaningful connection is never made that this is essentially where we are all over again! Still, the narrative is crisp and the characters extremely layered, giving the cast a lot to work with. DiCaprio’s meaty and edgy performance holds the story together perfectly; we’ve never seen him in anything so full-bodied, and he handles it very well indeed. As does Day-Lewis, in an even more complex role as the charming, conflicted and ultimately honorable villain. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and everything works together beautifully to grab us and thoroughly jar us on several levels. It’s a great story, and if it had been made just a bit more relevant, the film would have been a masterpiece.