It's a punishing piece of work, this Gangs of New York. Spectacular, brilliant, but punishing—basically, one long brawl framed between what must be the two bloodiest battle scenes ever committed to celluloid. At the least, the film is a corrective to the accepted notion that urban violence is a 20th-century phenomenon. “A western on Mars” was Scorsese's original concept. In Gangs, lower Manhattan as recreated on 15 acres of Cinecittà backlot, is a claustrophobia—inducing version of the Wild West.
You don't have to think twice about why Scorsese was attracted to this material. All of his great films are stories about New York subcultures: their origins, how they mold the individual, how they enforce their laws, the parts they play in the evolution of the city as a whole. Can the individual survive ostracism? What price does he pay for inclusion? From Mean Streets through The Age of Innocence, Scorsese has mined the dynamic between the individual and the social fabric of New York. It's an unfailing source of drama and character for him. Taxi Driver is the counterexample—an ethnography of the ultimate outsider. In Gangs, however, the fictional narrative of revenge and romance has, at best, a forced relationship to the social history of this period in the city's life.
You can read the complete version of this article in the January / February print edition of Film Comment.