Bringing Out the Dead

(USA - 1999)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Aida Turturro
Genre: Drama
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Joe Connelly
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Runtime: 120 minutes

Disgrace [noun]. 1. A condition of shame, dishonor or infamy. 2. Anything that brings out dishonor or shame.3. The fact that a useless movie with Nicolas Cage and everyone else as scenery, Gone In 60 Seconds, grosses $101.64 million in the US, while the last four movies by our greatest director, including one that boasts Cage's best performance, only grossed $96.61 (16.64 for this one).

Bringing Out the Dead is not a film for everyone. It's not for people who want happy shiny movies. It's not for people who want fleeting romances. It's not for people who need a tidy little plot with a nicely bowed ending. It's not for people who want to see the inglorious glorified. In fact, the "action" comes from the scenes where the paramedics are speeding, often somewhat out of control, in attempt to save the day. The scenes are so well and imaginatively done that they don't seem like action. They seem like what they are, which is two guys risking their lives to try to save one.

Bringing Out the Dead is for people who want to see a movie believably and honestly explore and handle its material. It's for people who want depth and perspective. It's for people who want to see what the everyday life of someone in a different profession is like, even if it isn't pretty. Of course, with Scorsese involved, it's ultimately for people who want to see a subject brought to film as well as possible.

I think many people watched this movie with their Eyes Wide Shut. They say, "ah, Scorsese just returned to the Mean Streets again, and this is no Taxi Driver." I too see someone who does what he always does, invests his heart, mind, body, and soul into making a great film. I see a director who has once again taken many chances and avoided selling out. Ultimately, it wasn't successful monetarily, but the fact that he once again delved into subject matter others are afraid of and refused to dumb down to cliché and convention is why he's once again succeeded in making a very worthy and rewarding film.

Bringing Out the Dead is a dark movie. It brings home the tough life not only of the paramedic, but also of everyone surrounding him. Actually, it's so good that it makes the city into its most disturbing, dangerous, and unforgiving character. It does all of this by looking at 48 hours of a burnt out paramedic, but its brilliance largely stems from two areas. The way we see into his head, his soul, and the way we see not only his longing, sorrow, and regret, but that of all the other characters as filtered through his eyes.

The movie poster/cover is one of the great ones. It's great because it puts all it's focus the same place the movie does, on the eyes of the star. In a sense, if you look in Nicolas Cage's eyes the whole time, you see Bringing Out the Dead. That's why I think it's his best work. Of course, it goes beyond the eyes, it gives us a malfunctioning brain, broken heart, and tormented soul, but the eyes are still the vessel.

The eyes are important for another reason; the movie doesn't really have a plot. That's perfectly logical, probably the only way it could work, because the life of a paramedic is not laid out or ordered. There's a routine to this life, but the dispatcher can send you anywhere within the boundaries for any possible death. You can't even count on picking up "the duke of drunks, the king of stink" because someone else might get that call. Bringing Out the Dead shows the paramedics speeding through an endless horror.

Scorsese and Paul Schrader have collaborated on four completed films (Dino is scheduled for release next year) - Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, & Bringing Out the Dead - all of which are challenging, daring, and exceptional. Dead is the worst of the four (although it's hard to hold anything to the standard of Raging Bull), but I don't think that's why it gets the least respect. I think it's mainly because it's the so Schrader-esque. It's medical personnel all have an Affliction, while the people they deal with every night all seek The Comfort of Strangers. There's many a Light Sleeper, yet the only patient that doesn't want to see the Light of Day is the one that will. Finding a patient that's savable is a Witch Hunt, and there's more than a Touch of comedy that is hilarious at the same time it's so sad.

Schrader is a writer who is fascinated by the fine line between sanity and insanity. With the Frank Pierce (Cage) character that former paramedic Joe Connelly gives us in his novel, Schrader has a protagonist whom is constantly walking that tight rope and always seems on the verge of falling off. For those looking for the plot, search no farther than Frank's mind. Bringing Out the Dead is about showing what he's going through, and it goes about this in every way from voice over narration that gives us perspective to hallucinations that show the haunting and maddening aspects of watching so many people die on your watch. The mind is as complex a topic as one can tackle, but Schrader is a remarkable writer, and with the help of excellent source material he has given us another multi-layered and faceted tale.

Frank is a simple man, or at least he was. His job is supposed to be to save people: all he wants to do is do it or escape it. Frank's problem is that he cares about his job too much, so much that he becomes his job. He's always longing for the fix of saving people, when everything in the world starts to glow. Frank is not an addict though, actually he is but not in that sense, he simply wants to do good and doesn't want to accept that in most cases, he's not going to have the chance. This is where the comparisons to Taxi Driver fall apart. It's pretty obvious that Scorsese presents Frank as his angel. I mean he is decked in white and glowing at one point, while Travis Bickle aspired to be an exterminator and eventually did resort to violence. It's true that both wanted to make NY City a better place, but Frank doesn't want to "wash the scum off the streets." In fact, he doesn't see his patients as low life freaks, he has compassion for them and so do we. He wants to help them, but his inability has made him desperate. Frank comes to the realization that "my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop." Unfortunately, sometimes finding the truth is no comfort. That Frank realizes he's essentially become a physical manifestation of grief doesn't help him in any way because the only way he knows to change it is to save somebody.

Frank has become totally exhausted and been driven to the edge because it's been six months since he last saved somebody. He sees ghosts in every nook and cranny of these unforgiving streets. A girl he couldn't save named Rose particularly haunts him; he sees her face everywhere and even has conversations "with her." Frank seeks refuge in the bottle when he's not on the job, but it only makes him sicker, both mentally and physically. Like most Schrader characters, he's a man in search of redemption.

Early in the movie, Frank is called to the household of John Burke (Tom Riis Farrell), who just had a heart attack. He gets the family to put on music John liked because he believes it helps. It does, it distracts the family and puts them in a better mood, into a mindset where they can think positively about the good times they had with John. John pops up like The Undertaker rising "from the dead" (of course several times faster), but it's not comedy and it's not suggesting the music helped; it's simply a reaction to being shocked. A lesser director would focus on that 1930's horror movie trick, but Scorsese gives you depth and concentrates on the feel. The movie is loaded with little tricks of the trade and pastimes that allow the characters to make it through the night with some semblance of sanity. That's one thing that makes it a great movie; you are made to feel what the characters feel and nothing about them or their actions are glorified. It's a new miserable experience for some members of the audience, but Scorsese never lets anything or anyone blind him from presenting well rounded truths.

Frank meets Mary (Patricia Arquette) at the Burke house, and because she spends most of her time at the hospital during these days hoping her father will come out of a coma, a bond develops between the two. A lesser director would have made this relationship about romance or sex, but Frank & Mary's bond is one of need. In Mary, Frank sees a way to redeem himself for the death of Rose. In Frank, Mary sees someone who is understanding, caring, and comforting. Yes, Frank has become something of a loon, but he still does his job very well, and part of his job is to pick the family members up. Due to the Rose ordeal, his relationship with Mary goes beyond that though.

Mary is the only other character that's well rounded; the others are there to present anecdotes, theories, and possibilities, to raise questions. Mary's family didn't leave the city like Frank's and many others did. The result is she's at home there because it's so familiar, but it's consuming and dangerous because the drugs she escaped are still available at every corner. Mary is in pain because she hasn't spoken to her father in three years. In fact, she's wished he was dead and was even considering telling him that when she got the call to come over because there'd been a catastrophe. Now that she's been shocked into action and had a little time to think, she realizes there are many important things to say to him that aren't negative, but she may never have the chance.

Mary adds a lot to the movie because she's the only outsider. She sees things the way they should be rather than the way they are. She sees a doctor who can't speak coherently and keeps poking himself in the eyes when he's supposed to be telling her important information about her father. Frank, of course, understands that the doctor is working (another) double shift. The facilities are overcrowded, and everyone involved in the saving process is overworked and overstressed.

As a counterpoint to Frank's relationship with Mary, the emotional core of the movie, the wildness and drive comes from the three interesting and increasingly more bizarre paramedics Frank works with. All the paramedics deal with their taxing, miserable job in a different way. Frank uses the bottle and whatever he can procure from the back of the ambulance. Larry (John Goodman) uses food; he can't eat the same meal twice in a row. He is the workmanlike guy who always gets the promotion - an argument that detachment is the only way to survive in this field - but then you knew it would be cynical given Schrader's involvement. Marcus (Ving Rhames) uses religion, but we see that it's phony escapism and his main interest is getting in the pants of the female dispatcher. Frank's former regular partner Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore) uses violence. His war cry is "someone's gonna kill themselves, I don't want to miss it!" He's more gone than Frank, not above beating someone he's supposed to save. We get the idea that this is one route Frank could possibly be headed toward if he doesn't quit or get redemption. One reason the film succeeds as well as it does is the ideas and influences of the secondary characters ultimately balance each other off. We don't get conclusions, we get a slice of the life; we see how it could be better at the same time we realize why it isn't.

As I mentioned before, people tend to liken Bringing Out the Dead to a lesser version of Taxi Driver, especially with a Schrader character driving around NY City. I think you can see a little of many of Scorsese's works in it. Yes, we see the mental instability of the driver in Taxi Driver. However, we also get the dizzying confusion of After Hours, the failure to act on emotions of Age of Innocence, the search for meaning of Kundun, and the quest for salvation and even the "virgin birth" of Last Temptation of Christ. Ultimately, we get the emotional probing and location influencing that Scorsese is famous for. Whether you enjoy it or not probably comes down to whether you liked one of Scorsese's other most underrated movies, After Hours. The main reason is both are dark comedies. That's why I vehemently disagree with those who think Bringing Out the Dead is too painful to watch. There are many treats to be found here, even if somewhat twisted.

Martin Scorsese (unseen) is hilarious as one of the dispatchers, but Ving Rhames really steals the show with his evangelistic Christian. When he knows the patient can be saved but those around him don't, he makes it look like the power of the lord has resurrected them. There are various scenes were Frank tries to get fired, but they are so understaffed that no one is ever let go. His boss keeps promising to fire Frank next time because he always needs him now; the city needs him. There's also a hilarious scene where Cage, with knife in hand, scares a man out of committing suicide. "This is the worst suicide attempt I've ever seen. Feel that pulse? That's where you cut!"

Scorsese is a director that always gets the best performances from his actors. I think because once he's satisfied that they are in character, have the look and the speech down perfectly, he pretty much leaves them alone. He lets them experiment take chances, and they have faith that he'll use the best take.

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Cage's role in this film is more difficult than in Leaving Las Vegas. In that film, the alcohol consumed him. He could simply be over the top and hide his lack of range behind the addiction. Don't get me wrong, he was very good for once, but the champion performance was still by Elizabeth Shue. Here, Cage reaches to the depths of his body and soul to give a haunting emotional portrayal. He is mentally exposed, very vulnerable. The substance abuse is there, but his portrayal goes so far beyond that you can almost forget about it. It's only one small aspect of why he's coming apart at the seams, and while he can be really wild, there are at least as many scenes where he's pretty much under control. Cage is pretty much a one note actor, his action character is simply cut and pasted into one useless film after another (with the exception of Face/Off, Woo's best since he ruined his output by coming to Hollywood), but he can show pain with the best of them. He really brings the torment and weariness out of this character; he does it realistically, but while still being entertaining.

One thing good about Cage is he doesn't try to steal the show. Ving Rhames & Tom Sizemore take virtually every scene from him, partly because he doesn't mind. They aren't on camera as much as he is, but they get to really make their presence felt. Rhames is wildly entertaining sending up the evangelists; he just finds the right voice and mannerisms to be both believable and fun. Sizemore is totally out of control playing the maniacal loose cannon; he has that look like he's always ready to snap and revels in the opportunity kicking some poor druggy's ass.

The casting of men is always awesome in every Scorsese movie, but with a few exceptions (Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, Rosanna Arquette & Linda Fiorentino in After Hours, and obviously Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) I always feel there had to be much better performers for the female lead. Patricia Arquette is trying to extend her range, and she does fine, but she's really overshadowed by the others. In a way, that's by design because she's a very human character. Her performance is grounded. She does do a good job of showing her pain, desperation, and simply being "real," but there's nothing exceptional here.

It goes without saying that the team of Scorsese & editor Thelma Schoonmaker provides technical excellence. I mean, they've been doing this together for over 30 years. Some year Scorsese might even win Best Director; I suppose his chances are increasing now that extraordinare Kevin Costner has settled for doing bad Elvis impersonations.

The cinematography by Robert Richardson, an Oliver Stone regular who wonderfully filmed Scorsese's Casino (his best is probably Stone's Natural Born Killers) is excellent, particularly for his lighting and use of colors. An angelic white is cast over self-sacrificer Cage, whose skin is pale as a ghost from what that is doing to him. The city is almost entirely dark with the exception of the red ambulance lights because there is so little brightness in this city. We feel the presence of the city, and see how it effects the characters. The ambulance scenes were wild, blurring dizzying fast motion that brings out the uncertainty that they'll reach their destination safely. The hallucinatory scenes that constantly haunt Frank and the audience remind us that he can't escape his pain and regret are also fantastic. They are drug induced without getting out of hand. In a way, Bringing Out the Dead is an attack on our senses so we can not only understand but also feel the maddening exhausting hopelessness Frank is suffering from.

There are several segments of the movie that you could almost snip the beginning and the end and say this is a music video. That doesn't detract from the overall feel, it really adds to the chaos. The idea to stay away from the bright crowded New York streets and instead film in the dark dingy ones was definitely the right one for the mood of the gritty piece. There is no promise in the lives of these characters, only continuance, pain, and/or despair.

One scene that shows Scorsese's guts is the scene where drug dealer Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis) has been run through by a pointy balcony. Scorsese could have pleased the vampires in the audience by showing the fall. He could have made it gruesome in many ways or he could have made the rescue attempt into an adventure scene with some John Williams cartoon music. Instead, he gives us a dazzling fireworks display. He's departed from realism for a minute, but he's done so to create a balance between the background and the person. I think it shows Cy was not created by the city; he's simply a capitalist that took advantage of its inhabitants.

I certainly won't claim Bringing Out the Dead is a movie everyone should like, but it's one you should be able to appreciate if you decide to watch it. It's another technical masterpiece - scoring big time with camera work, lighting, editing, and music - but it's daringly different from previous Scorsese and most anything else. It has great depth and diversity in the writing, but also very colorful dark humor. The dialogue is well thought out, and the actors bring it to life with the right sound and feel. It's raw power, and that it makes you tired, uncomfortable, depressed, dizzy and disoriented simple means it's succeeded. 



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