Gods of New York

Leonardo DiCaprio, catching God if he canIn Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, church buildings play one of their most traditional roles: as headquarters for men bent on the ancient custom of holy war.

Two hours into the movie, a revenge plot that pits a young Irish Catholic man called Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) against his father’s murderer, an American protestant named William Cutting, also known as “Bill the Butcher” (Daniel Day Lewis), Amsterdam and his gang gut and restore an aging Catholic church in order to use it as a hideout. Having wavered between the risk of avenging his father’s death and the allure of a privileged life in Cutting’s care (“under the wing of a dragon,” as Amsterdam describes it), Amsterdam’s return to the church of his father — crucifix looming in the background — represents his determination to be about his father’s business, to boil his anger into a murderous fervor so that he can avenge his father’s death and take down the protestant tyrant who holds violent sway over the Five Points neighborhood. The priest seems to welcome Amsterdam and his gang, silently acknowledging that power struggles, after all, are part of the business of the church.

The institutional church in Gangs is limp and pathetic, no more influential on the movie’s characters than Dixie (the only thing the impoverished men of Five Points know about the war down South is that they could be forced to fight). Signs hang about the neighborhood inviting passersby to church services, but no one besides the sign-hangers seems to notice. One night, when Amsterdam attends a dance at a protestant mission, a preacher leans in to remind him that church services are held regularly at 6 and 8 p.m. “Go to hell,” Amsterdam replies.

Amsterdam rejects the minister just as he rejects an offer of a Bible from the cleric who works in the prison where Amsterdam spends much of his childhood after his father’s death. Leaving jail, Amsterdam walks across a bridge and tosses the Bible into the river; we watch it sink in a slow-motion close-up and assume that Amsterdam wants nothing to do with religion.

Yet again and again we see him kneel and pray for the strength to kill the man who killed his father. Indeed, all of the principal characters in Gangs, as in virtually every Martin Scorcese film, are bathed in a strange and discomforting piety as much as they are bathed in one another’s blood. Violence and religion have long been convergent themes for Scorcese: Charlie Cappa (Mean Streets) wants to be a servant of God, to save everyone around him, but the warfare of the streets is unrelenting; Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) purges the city of its sin by executing the sinners; and then there’s Jesus Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ), who in Scorcese’s gospel is a carpenter who fashions the crosses upon which his fellow Jews are put to death — along with, eventually, Jesus himself. Scorcese has been meditating on the intersection of violence and religion for all of his 30-plus years as a filmmaker. Gangs of New York does not exactly take him into new territory, but it drives this thematic obsession with renewed vigor.

As the film opens, Amsterdam’s father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) heads into battle with a legion of Irish Catholics behind him. They meet at the center of the Five Points, and square off against Cutting and his “native American” cohorts: descendents of the American revolutionaries, they fancy themselves true Americans and the rightful owners of the burgeoning country. To be protestant and born on American soil is to not be Irish and Catholic and newly immigrated. The Irish pray to the right God in the wrong way, though sometimes the distinction is made even broader. As the battle lines are drawn, Bill declares that the fight will pit “natives born rightwise in this land against the foreign hordes defiling it. May the Christian Lord guide my hand against your Roman popery.” Wielding his knife in one hand and an iron cross in the other, Priest Vallon answers, “Prepare to receive the true Lord.”

Thus begins the first of many bloodbaths in Gangs of New York, a movie that moves from one scene to the next by virtue of who lives and who dies; we can tell the plot is advancing because fewer characters are still living. The film is an operatic and compelling meditation on a horrifying irony: that for all the Constitution’s talk of individual liberty and common peace, America is laid on a foundation of blood, shed most often over small matters of turf and local power. Not just the epic righteous wars where men — according to the textbooks, anyway — gave their lives willingly as patriotic defenders of the republic, but the minor wars over race, religious preference and neighborhood control. Such wars were often bloodier than the grand battles, in appearance if not in fact. When 5,000 men die of gunshot in one day, history’s camera pans out to wide angles; when one man is stabbed in the back with a cleaver, we can see the blade cutting into the flesh.

Gangs of New York brings the two kinds of battles together in the end, but Scorcese brings us uncomfortably close to the action in both cases. As Amsterdam, Bill the Butcher and their respective gangs prepare to make war to decide who controls the Five Points, they are unaware that the rest of New York City is rioting against Abraham Lincoln’s Conscription Act, which forced male citizenry into the Civil War. The Draft Riots, a little-discussed moment of New York history, rage for several days, complete with lynchings and, in the end, the Union army marching through the streets and gunning down the rioters. The city, in Scorcese’s imagination writ large upon the screen, is literally a pool of blood.

Amsterdam and Bill manage to finish their business amidst the mayhem, but we know it doesn’t matter much. America is plunging forward without them and their regard for ancient religious warfare. But that is not to say that their kind of piety is left behind in history. Why does Amsterdam reject the well-meaning ministers, but embrace a kind of belief? How can he toss the Bible into the sea, then use the language of scripture to fuel his fury? Because religion is not for saving one’s soul. It is for meting out who gets what, and when. As Scorcese shows — in a scene where a wealthy politico thanks God for gracious mercy in one breath and promptly shoots rioters coming through his door the next, and in a final shot of the 20th century New York skyline that includes the World Trade Center — that kind of religious conviction is still with us today.

Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).