Director: Martin Scorsese
Finally, a Scorsese film I can really like! (I’ve never been a big Scorsese fan. Shocking, I know.) This is an incredible film. And I say that as someone who doesn’t like ganster, gang, or Civil War films. Yes, it is violent and difficult to watch at times, but the violence is all to make a point and paint a picture of how society was at that time. The story is “simple:” in the mid-1800s, a young man in New York seeks revenge against the gang boss who murdered his father. But the backdrop is a complex mess of racism, immigration policies, politics, religion, slavery, and a Civil War that divides not just the country, but New York as well. When you reflect that all this is happening in a brand new country less than a century old, you really feel the future of the U.S. hanging in the balance. Scorsese (and the script) do an amazing job of making all that complicated history understandable (much better than other “historical” films which assume you know the history) without lecturing or oversimplifying. Scorsese cleverly hints at the complexity, giving us glimpses, without trying to actually explain everything in detail (which would no doubt require several documentaries). This gives us entertainment mixed with a little education instead of the other way around. An excellent example is the intercut prayer scene: we watch as the main character, main bad guy, and a rich family each pray. All are sincere, all believe God is on their side, and yet we sense that disaster is about to befall them. This series of images is powerful, complicated, and thought-provoking. Very cool. Scorsese does a lot of simple imagery, camera movement, and very effectively tells a powerful story. (I liked the way he filmed the horrific battle scenes, not really showing that much gore, but implying it with quick flashes of alarmed faces. I will nitpick one detail, however: at least one battling couple in the opening fight appeared to be dancing than fighting. They were just tapping each other the shoulder with their clubs!)
In terms of performances, I must again put forth my vote for Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor ever in the history of cinema. The guy is just amazing (he was my primary motivation to see this film). He never misses. Just flawless. The way he becomes a character is frightening. While I like Leonardo and Cameron Diaz, they’re lightweights compared to Daniel. In the trailers I was cringing at some of their scenes, but that was just because they were out of context: in the film they’re both fine. Their charisma does come through and their fight-slash-love scene is some terrific cinema (surely they had to hurt each other filming that). In general everything felt so authentic that I really fell for all the characters, sympathizing and hating, which is exactly what a good film is supposed to do.
This was just a great film. It was frightening, humorous, passionate, educational, historical, dramatic, and profound without being artsy or pretentious. It is long, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much that could be cut out. The final scenes showing old New York become modern-day New York were amazing: I’d love to study those images. I especially liked that Scorsese included the Twin Towers in the modern shot, rather than removing it the way so many recent films have done. To me that added a powerful message that history is real, and just like the Twin Towers not being part of the NY skyline any more, we can’t see the blood on the streets left by the millions of people that built the city. Wow.