Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Spectacle Of Fearsome Acts: Bill The Butcher

This entry is part of The Performance That Changed Your Life Blog-a-Thon over at All About My Movies.

I can't say that there is one single performance that has changed my life, but there are several that have left me awe-struck. And not necessarily whole performances. It can be one scene. If they nail that scene it makes the whole movie. One particular performance that left me inspired was Daniel Day Lewis as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting in Gangs Of New York. This performance stood out to me for several reasons. Most importantly, it told me that Scorsese's career wasn't over. Not by a long shot. Scorsese hadn't directed a really good movie since Cape Fear and some might argue that Goodfellas was his last truly great film. I'm not saying that as a whole Gangs Of New York was a great film, because it wasn't. It is a deeply flawed film, but it is not without its moments. Moments where we are witnessing the Scorsese of old. Moments where you think his best movie is still out there. And in seeing how wonderful this scene is, it made me wish the rest of this movie were as perfect. I felt this same way with The Aviator. The scene with Kate Blanchet on the golf course is magnificent. So perfect in everything. It tells me that Scorsese's best work is on a more personal level. As big as Goodfellas was, it was still a very personal story. While it documented mafia life, it was not epic by any means. And by keeping it personal, Scorsese kept himself at his best.

In this scene, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) is sleeping with Jenny (Diaz). He wakes up to find Bill sitting in a chair beside the bed, wrapped in an American flag. The room is quiet, the tone is serene yet this is one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever witnessed. Up to this point, Day Lewis has established himself as the most ruthless man in the Five Points. It is a testament to his performance that even in rest, his character is menacing. Day Lewis knows this and he plays to it. We do not know why he is there. Is he angry with Amsterdam for sleeping with Jenny? Is he on to Amsterdam, knowing that he is the son of 'Priest' Valon? It may be both of these things, but Bill never leads on. Instead, he talks to Amsterdam about the power of fear. It is a threat, disguised as a life lesson.

As Bill sits, wrapped in the flag that justifies all his hate and violence, he tells the story of Valon, the last man he killed worth remembering. He is not boisterous or proud. Instead, he is sad. Amidst all the hatred and fear that Bill displays, we see a hopelessness about him. You can see the toll that his crusade has taken on him and you can see in his eyes that despite all the fear he has created, the battle still rages. He cannot make it go away.

It would be very easy for Day Lewis to play his character big. But it is in his subtleties where he excels. The intensity in which Day Lewis delivers every line suggests that at any moment the chair could turn, a knife could be drawn and all hell could break loose. And despite all his fear mongering, Day Lewis brings reason to Bill and gives him a heart and soul. And for the lingering moments of this performance, Day Lewis makes this monster of a man not seem like a monster at all.


Anonymous said...

Definitely an underrated performance (one of the best villains in recent memory), as well as an underrated film. This film is what put Day Lewis on my radar (I hadn't seen much of his old stuff, then he went shoe cobbling), and I can't wait till There Will Be Blood comes out.

brian said...


Have you never seen My Left Foot?


tomdwayne said...

no one seems to like casino - i always hear/read "best scorsese since goodfellas", well i guess i´m alone in finding it to be his last great movie.
but, alas, you´re right about day lewis in this. while reading your post, the scene you then describe instantly came to mind (before i read your description).
what i find most interesting is that bill the butcher seems to have been a real person. i wish the movie wouldn´t lose itself in the (fictitious) revenge story and would just portrait this character. as so often it´s the factual stuff, scorsese gets so right. he´s the best storyteller around when just showing how things work.

PIPER said...


You're right. Casino is good. It seemed too much like Goodfellas to call it out, though. If I'm going to call out the superior film, it will be Goodfellas.

But I like Casino very much

Anonymous said...

I agree, the first time I watched The Gangs of New York I thought it was very well done but totally fictitious. Then I read the book The Gangs of New York and realized what Scorsese was trying to do. And I might add he did it very well. He was taking the entire way of life, the New York underground, and telling a story that would give us a glimpse into how things were. I think its best said in the end of the movie. When you see Bill’s and the Priest’s graves and then the city builds up as the graves (and the memories) of them disappear. Not the best movie ever but in my opinion, one of Scorsese’s most intriguing and thought provoking.