Gangs of New York may be the most ambitious film of the last few years. Its production design and cinematography are among the best I have ever seen. Unfortunately, its story structure cannot support the film's ambition.
The main structural element that sets this movie apart from others is context. Most Hollywood fare shows nothing of the world of the hero. It wants to get to the goal as quickly as possible so the audience can start on its wild ride.
As a result, the average Hollywood movie has speed, but no subtlety or complexity. There is no sense of how the world drives the hero or how others manifest the hero's central problem in different forms in the world.
Gangs of New York, on the other hand, has a massive amount of context. Indeed, it depicts and compresses all of American history of the 19th century in one film. And it does so by setting up a number of powerful dramatic oppositions: nativists vs. immigrants, the powerful vs. the weak, rich vs. poor, Catholic vs. Protestant, tribes and sectionalism vs. government and the rule of law.
But there is one big problem with showing so much context. You have to have a great desire line. Context is world; it goes sideways in a story. Desire is linear; it is the forward line on which everything hangs. The more you put on the line, the stronger the line has to be.
And what is the desire line these writers use to hang all of 19th century American history? A young man wants to take revenge on the man who killed his father in a street brawl when he was eight.
An eight-year-old seeing his father killed in a street brawl is not the stuff of Hamlet. This is no prince whose throne has been usurped by a murdering uncle who has also married the murdered king's wife. Which is why this boy's burning desire to take revenge rings so hollow. And why the forward movement of the story collapses almost immediately.
A weak desire line in a film with so much context is already big trouble. Add to that an almost complete lack of plot, and we have narrative suicide.
The interesting thing is why there is so little plot. I found myself wondering about that while I was watching the film (also a very bad sign). It didn't make sense. Here was a fascinating period of American history, with developments coming fast and furious, and yet nothing seems to be happening in this film.
And then it hit me. Gangs of New York has almost no reveals. Plot doesn't come from a lot of things happening. Plot comes from hidden information about the opponents. When this information is revealed to the hero and the audience, the story turns. The audience is surprised and engaged.
So why does Gangs of New York have almost no reveals? It all goes back to the choice of a desire line. By giving the hero all the knowledge with his revenge desire line, it is the opponent, Bill the Butcher, who must discover hidden information about the hero. The opponent has the reveal, and it is information the audience already knows. This is a fatal mistake.
The choice of a desire line also causes a break in the movie's spine. The first movie ends after Bill learns the hero's true identity and plot to kill him. In the annual tribute to the hero's slain father, Bill brands the hero in front of the entire community and sends him into exile, which is just down the street.
Besides being unbelievable -- Bill the Butcher isn't a man who shies away from killing his enemies - this action ends the first story and forces the movie to have to restart. In a movie this long, that's a real audience killer.
The second movie represents a considerable drop off from the first, which already suffered from a weak desire line. Incredibly, for a movie this long, this second film felt both rushed and boring, as the branded outcast quickly rises to lead all Irish in New York. I guess there's nothing star power can't do.
Not surprisingly, the writers have trouble coming up with an organic ending. They have already given us a final battle when Bill exposes the hero and brands him in the tribute. Now they have to come up with another battle, this time in the midst of the terrible race riots of 1863.
But, curiously, the writers purposely undercut the showdown between hero and opponent by having the federal guns blow up the opposing gangs before they can fight.
Thematically, this is quite interesting; we are shifting from one social stage to another, from the era of New York ruled by gangs to an era of New York ruled by a nation of laws.
But the cost of this thematic choice is severe. It further de-dramatizes a final confrontation that is too long in coming and is a pale repetition of the previous story beat.
There is much about Gangs of New York that is worthwhile, even awe-inspiring. But the movie is also proof, once again, that great filmmaking comes from a great script. And the best visuals in the world won't save you if your script isn't there.