A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Gangs of New York is a 2002 Martin Scorsese movie about the prejudice and hatred Irish immigrants faced upon their arrival in New York City during the Civil War. This movie is extremely violent, with savagely brutal battles and oceans of blood. Bill the Butcher uses his expertise to cause the most painful damage possible. Characters are badly wounded and killed, including a hanging. The movie also has very strong language, including the "N" word, and racial slurs toward Asian Americans. We also hear "f--k," "bitches," "hell," "goddamn," "Jesus," "for Christ's sake" and 19th-century slang terms for female genitalia and venereal disease. It has sexual references and situations, including nudity (breasts and buttocks), prostitution, a character in bed with three naked women, and a reference to abortion. Characters engage in every possible kind of corruption and illegality. Binge drinking occurs throughout, and there's cigar and cigarette smoking as well as opium smoking.
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What's the story?
GANGS OF NEW YORK is the story of the origins of New York City in the Civil War era when it was not yet a city, but "a furnace where a city might be forged." When the leader of the Dead Rabbits gang is killed by the leader of "the natives" (who've been in the U.S. for generations) in a huge and brutal skirmish, his young son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), is taken to an orphanage/reformatory. He returns 20 years later, determined to finish his father's fight. By this time, the man who killed his father, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), runs just about everything in the sprawling area called Five Points. In Five Points, Amsterdam recognizes some of his father's supporters, including Happy Jack (John C. Reilly) and McGloin (Gary Lewis). The only one who recognizes him is Johnny (Henry Thomas). Amsterdam infiltrates Bill the Butcher's inner circle, and when he begins to treat Amsterdam like a son, the boy who lost his father cannot help but respond. Amsterdam also begins to care for a pickpocket/thief, and a sometimes prostitute named Jenny (Cameron Diaz).
Is it any good?
Martin Scorsese is a director of astonishing power, and Gangs of New York is a movie of astonishing imagination, ambition, and scope. The first 15 minutes are as dazzling as any images ever put on screen. The rest of the movie veers from brilliant to flawed, but it is unfailingly arresting, provocative, and powerful. The struggle between good and evil is represented at every level, from the internal struggles within Amsterdam to the massive battles between the immigrants and the natives. Scorsese also puts the combat in Five Points within the context of the riots in New York after the Union began conscripting soldiers. His reach is overambitious at times, but he has a sure hand with the narrative and fills each frame with splendid images.
After the terrible fighting is over, Scorsese shows us how the city was delivered, in both senses of the word. Superfluous voice-overs and flashbacks are very annoying, Thomas' character is poorly conceived, and Cameron Diaz, though game, is badly miscast. DiCaprio just manages to stay on top of his role, but Day-Lewis gives a career-topping performance of such ferocity that the character almost bursts out of the screen.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how our history creates us. What does the movie tell you about present-day New York? Why does Amsterdam's father tell him to leave the blood on the blade, and never look away? How does Scorsese show us parallels between the different gangs and between the gangs and other groups, like the Tammany Hall politicians and the draft protesters?
Was the violence in the movie excessive or was it necessary to convey the terrible realities of the time and place? Why?
Do you see any parallels in the historical background of the story to other moments in American history and what's happening today?
- In theaters: December 20, 2002
- On DVD or streaming: July 1, 2003
- Cast: Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Studio: Miramax
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 167 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language
- Last updated: September 17, 2020
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