Gangs of New York: The Fear of Bill the Butcher

Every villain needs a juicy origin story. Bill the Butcher has two, that of his real life basis, William Poole, and the fictional past of the character from “Gangs of New York”. Their timelines diverge in many different directions, but both Bills serve as epic representations of the power struggles during Civil War-era New York. The extreme fear they instilled to maintain control speaks of the wild turbulence of the time. Understanding the emotional motivations of evil men can reveal timeless struggles through cycles of war and violence, whether they’re fictional or not.

The scene where Bill reveals his past to Amsterdam is composed of two shots that visually serve the major themes encompassing each character. The shots are juxtaposed, their faces shadowed on opposite sides, a circular mirror on Bill’s upper right, reflecting his true self. Mirrored on Amsterdam’s side a smaller, circular part of the wrought iron bed says his window is smaller, but you can see through him. An extinguished lantern is to Bill’s left, representing a light has gone out in him, and some red fabric drips down like blood to Amsterdam’s left, foreshadowing his murderous intent. The most striking visual in the scene is the very character-appropriate American flag wrapped around Bill’s shoulders, as a dirty, frayed king’s mantle.

Hyper-vigilant insomnia is understandable for a crime boss who just survived an assasanation attempt, but it’s still an almost hilarious shock to discover Bill watching them sleep, wrapped in an inexplicable flag. Amsterdam saved Bill’s life to preserve his own chance for revenge, maintain the facade, and perhaps because he was starting to have mixed feelings toward his father’s murderer. Either unaware or unwilling to admit his savior’s duplicitous objective, Bill finally trusts someone enough to confess his lifelong motivation.

“Fear.” Bill admits. After that word escapes him, a glittering speck of a tear appears in the corner of his eye, echoing 47 years of living in fear. The graphic explanation of the Hammurabi-like code by which he ruled, just solidifies that notion. There’s no one way to feel about any part of this scene. Mixed emotions abound between the main characters in the film, but this is when they’re drawn the tightest.

Amsterdam has very few lines during Bill’s monologue, still saying a lot with uncomfortable movements and subtle expressions. When Bill describes the attempted assassin as “A nobody, a coward”, Amsterdam’s furrowed brow and crossed arms speak of anxiety and deception. His perception of his own vengeful motivation makes a huge shift from a feeling of justice to an avoidance, a fear, of grief. He knows killing Bill won’t bring his father back, but now he’s getting a sense it won’t make him feel better either. Somehow an attempt such as the one Amsterdam stopped would make Bill lose respect for him, which at this point in the film, Amsterdam did not want. He looks away when Bill asks if he’s seen Priest’s portrait downstairs, as if Bill could see the truth behind his eyes. This moment gets a callback later.

Immense sadness in Bill’s demeanor shows deep insecurity when he describes Priest as “the greatest man I ever knew.” He obviously feels lesser than great. In the same breath as praising Amsterdam’s “murderous rage”, Bill admits he and Priest “lived by the same principles, the only thing that divided us was faith.” He sees himself in Amsterdam the way he wants to see Priest in himself. A centuries-old cycle of war and revenge is revealed along with every layer stripped away from Bill’s character. One of the most historically accurate similarities between William Poole and Bill Cutting is their extreme racism. He describes Irish Immigrants as a pestilence on protestant white men, yet the man he most admired was his slain Irish rival.

The origin of his admiration was the “finest beating I ever took” inflicted by Priest, long before the film’s inciting event. Bill describes the violence almost as if he enjoyed it, perhaps proud of the pain he endured. A revelation of trauma surrounds the story like an uncomfortable mist. It wasn’t the beating that traumatized Bill, it was the shame.

“I couldn’t look him in the eye…” Bill confesses, followed by a long pause while he’s lost in the memory. Villains often have a moment where their story clicks into place and we figure out why he lives his life inflicting abuse on others. The far-off expression in Bill’s remaining eye shows us his self-hatred, like a lot of bullies, motivates him to control people with violence. Bill’s avoidant gaze is the callback to Amsterdam’s, again juxtaposing and aligning their characters. Ambivalent hero/villain relationships are common, but they’re conflicted about each other as one of the main aspects of their dynamic. The father/son, mentor/protege relationship that forms between Bill and Amsterdam is the closest and most honest during this scene.

Bill’s most acute reaction to pain (emotional or physical, besides wild rage) is a split second before he says one of the last lines in the scene: “He was the only man I killed worth remembering.” Priest made Bill who he was by beating him almost to death, then letting him live, creating a standard Bill could only live up to by dying proudly in battle. Revenge was his greatest achievement and far from providing satisfaction or resolution, it left the rest of his life hollow.

A tense feeling arises from this scene that Bill knows Amsterdam is Priest’s son, plotting to avenge his father’s death. From this bubbling kettle of emotions, Bill doesn’t display suspicion, on the contrary, he shows implicit trust. If at least some part of him knows Amsterdam’s secret, he’s buried it under a heap of denial, and he’s quite possibly looking forward to the culmination of this vengeance cycle between them.

The only legacy he plans on leaving is the perpertuation of an ancient war from across the ocean. America is still caught in the ripple effect of perpetual violence because the men who built this country weren’t that different from Bill Cutting.

In December of 2002, audible gasps filled theaters when the last shot of the film appeared on screen. Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it was deeply moving to see the World Trade Center reappear after such an epic retelling of New York history. Filmmakers have to be aware of the audience to which a historical drama is being presented and in this case, the entire world changed during the production. Racism, violence, fierce patriotism, xenophobia, and a fanatical love for New York City arose from the ashes. America’s fear was so palpable, you could taste it. In seemingly perfect, yet random synchronicity, “Gangs of New York” gave us a view of how far we’ve evolved and how far we have to go in a time when everyone was scrambling for answers.


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