In the terrible shadow of Syrians willfully killing Syrians, a look at Martin Scorsese’s epic-proportioned study of the Irish “problem” in the last half of the 19th century (filmed extensively in Italy even as the depiction of the “Five Points” confluence of New York City is a triumph of detail and historical accuracy for the design team led by the now legendary Dante Ferretti), the film’s visual/emotional impact seems to resonant—still—on daily newscasts all around the globe.
Unlike the real world atrocities, the major thrust of this fictional recounting of tribe vs. tribe produces more than the requisite amount of unconscionable death and gore to depict the awful truth that sent too many “natives” and newcomers to early graves, but three vital narrative events fail to pass the litmus test of believability. In every case, had they resonated more convincingly, the credits would have had to roll far before their time (a more than generous 167 minutes).
As a young lad, Amsterdam Vallon (effectively wide-eyed Cian McCormack) witnesses the murder of his preacher/dad and leader of The Dead Rabbits (Liam Neeson gives a truly courageous-to-the-last performance) at the unforgiving hand of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis positively revels in the bloodbath be his targets men or pigs—occasionally both). A litany of others breathe their last as the gangs continue their Emerald Isle warring ways whether immigrants or U.S.-born.
Fast forward 16 years and Amsterdam returns to the Five Points ready to avenge his father’s death—nothing unusual there: that’s how “disputes” keep their fire for centuries. Leonardo DiCaprio makes for an unlikely Irishman (just imagine Michael Fassbender in the role!) but otherwise goes about his deadly business with a good sense of style and determination. Soon ensconced into Butcher Bill’s circle (seems only long-lost friend, Johnny recognizes Amsterdam after the long absence and ravages of puberty, apparently becoming the son Bill the brute never had …) the narrative stops cold when the hot-blooded youth doesn’t seize the very first opportunity to stick a knife (“don’t wipe the blood …”) into his adversary’s ribs and permanently settle the festering score. But if he had, there’d be no movie.
Friend Johnny and his long-lost bud end up clamoring for the same belle of the 1862 ball. Upscale pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz at least brightens the screen with her visage and outrageous demeanour) opts to see what’s in the new man’s pockets, leaving Johnny to smoulder quietly off set. Incredibly, by now almost tiresomely (many, many bodies since), he steps back into frame to play his Judas card, alerting bloodthirsty Bill that—who could believe it?—the sudden apple of his familial eye might just be as rotten to the core as himself. Yikes!
Finally, as the plot works its way through corrupt politics and conscription most foul (if you just happen to have $300 to spare, a trip to the front and virtual certain death in the Civil War can be avoided: luck of the Irish, indeed!), the wily throat-slitter bludgeons the Sheriff-elect (Brendan Gleeson shows a convincing range of characterization as Monk McGinn) in the back, in broad daylight with dozens of witnesses enjoying the show. And his punishment for—even by his standards—such a brazenly act? Nothing. Seems he’s needed in the final scene when, of course, it will be just Bill and Amsterdam (having been incongruously spared to “live life as a freak” after an earlier knife throwing dust up) in the ring of revenge.
With the New York Draft Riots as a backdrop, the final encounter is played to a full, if half-dead house. Scorsese scores some fine political points along the way and demonstrates the mastery of his craft in every scene, but the underlying theme of brutal revenge at any cost loses its way too early on to deliver the horrific impact that the narrative threads—taken on their own—promised in the inciting action. JWR