Director Martin Scorsese was born to make Gangs of New York — an operatic look at the birth of America’s violent subculture that has for years fascinated and fueled both U.S. society and Scorsese’s cinematic works.

Equal parts action, intense personal drama, acting master class from Daniel Day Lewis and history lesson, Gangs is, in a way, the family tree for Scorsese films from Taxi Driver to Goodfellas. Inked with violently shed blood, the lineage he presents is wholly riveting, despite a handful of very minor screenwriting and acting flaws.

Most Scorsese films have one truly memorable set piece, but Gangs has several — a mid-movie assassination attempt and a finale that looks like hell unleashed are among them. None, though, is better than its marvelous opening in 1846. 

In an almost medieval-looking underground lair, a group of Irish immigrants prepares for battle against a group of Anglo-Saxon “native” Americans in the Five Points borough of New York.

This battle is a brutal, visceral shocker, punctuated by sledgehammer editing, a sharp, angry instrumental from Peter Gabriel and a brilliant crane shot (with the assistance of special effects) focusing on a once pristine-white triangle of snow now saturated with blood.

Among all the deaths only that of Irish leader Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) at the hands of “native” leader Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) matters. With him dies the Irish immigrants’ right to lay claim to any Five Points territory and the innocence of his son, Amsterdam.

Now 17 years removed from the trauma, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to New York intent on avenging his father’s death by killing the now all-powerful Bill. His goal is complicated by feelings for the independent, feisty pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz), dealings with turncoats and lowlifes and the palm-greasing griminess of the infamous politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

The film has a dynamic visual acuity that all but guarantees Oscar nods for production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and costume designer Sandy Powell.

As though lit by the fires of hell, Scorsese’s New York circa 1863 is a labyrinthine maze of back alleys, shanties, underground tunnels and rickety buildings. Through these elaborate and realistic locations, we get an even greater sense of the way Scorsese sees America churning its engine.

DiCaprio is a top-billed star here, and one who in general has received some unfair shots against his skill in the wake of Titanic. That said, DiCaprio too frequently shows Amsterdam’s naivete through befuddled stares and a gaping mouth. Only when the character inserts himself into Bill’s inner circle does DiCaprio come alive, fighting to keep his life’s only motivation in check while intimating himself with the enemy.

Many of his scenes with Diaz ring true, especially a first-act confrontation scene that is at different turns violent, seductive and cordial. The script maneuvers the romance around some tricky corners (a “triangle” with Bill), but falters in the third act when Diaz’s intriguing character is largely reduced to a stock faithful companion.

Clearly, though, the pulse of the Five Points is also the pulse of the movie, and that is Bill “The Butcher.” Lewis is nothing short of magnificent in every single scene of this film, a triumph of face-altering makeup, body language, an impeccable accent and a resonant portrayal of this character’s convictions.

Equally compelling as a completely frightening villain and a sympathetic king scrambling to keep his kingdom, Bill is one of the greatest characters in years. Lewis’ hypnotic, passionate performance isn’t just one that towers over Gangs — it is one of the best in all of film.

The film’s editing, suspense, and overall visual style all are evocative of classic Scorsese greats, but rarely has the filmmaker’s thematic eye been so carefully trained. 

In this eye-blink of history, the country’s scars of racism and pride as a nation were formed in tandem. It’s clear that Scorsese, a born-and-raised New Yorker, loves his city and country. But he tempers that affection by questioning not only the progress of The Big Apple, but of our nation. This is one of the best films of the year.