BRINGING OUT THE DEAD
(director: Martin Scorsese; screenwriter: Paul Schrader/ based on the novel by Joe Connelly; cinematographer: Robert Richardson; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker Powell; cast: Nicolas Cage (Frank Pierce), Patricia Arquette (Mary Burke), John Goodman (Larry), Ving Rhames (Marcus), Tom Sizemore (Tom), Marc Anthony (Noel), Cliff Curtis (Cy Coates), Mary Beth Hurt (Nurse Constance), Aida Turturro (Nurse Crupp); Runtime: 120; Paramount Pictures; 1999)
“This film can’t help being anything but disturbing, one that questions living in a modern city.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Bringing Out The Dead, in one sense,is a love/hate black comedy about the relationship the director Martin Scorsese has with his home turf of NYC in the early 1990s. In another sense, it is a psychological study about those who are trying to save the sick in a dying city when they can’t be sure if they can even save themselves. Frank Pierce (Cage) is a burnt-out paramedic who has gone on one too many missions of mercy, thinking that he needs just one last save to regain his equilibrium. He now sees the ghosts of those he couldn’t save everywhere he looks. The conflict inside him revolves around the tremendous high he gets over saving a life — there is no better feeling he tells us in a voiceover, his usual way of conveying to the viewer what he is thinking. His low point is from all the depravity and hopelessness and horror he sees all around him everyday.
Frank’s ambulance route is in the neighborhood of his Hell’s Kitchen birthplace though his family moved upstate when he was of high school age, as so many others in the neighborhood have previously done, to remove themselves from the doldrums of drugs and despair and crime that has taken over the streets in that once mostly close-knit Irish enclave.
Frank’s ambulance races past the unnatural everyday sights of the city: of hookers working the streets (one hooker is pregnant), children drug dealers, the homeless, drunks, and a frightening look at how the Have-Nots live in a city of morbid neon lights and graffiti razed hi-riser buildings. These images become a reminder of how NYC has come to resemble hell.
There is the ghost of one patient whom Frank lost recently, a young homeless woman named Rose, whom he keeps seeing over and over again, causing him to be severely depressed, to suffer from insomnia, to not eat properly, and finally to hit the bottle. That he is stressed out should come as no surprise, his job might very well be the most stressful one in the city. So who could blame him if he reports late to work and uses up all his sick days and can’t get fired even though he wants to, all because the city needs his body out there! Frank’s downfall is not that uncommon for a job like his.
Scorsese emphasizes how tormenting this job is by following the ambulance driver around for three painful nightshifts through the glittering lights of Manhattan, as each night Frank is teamed with a different partner who has a different outlook on the job. That in a nutshell is the plot of the film, as this is a story mostly about the unique personalities of those who choose to work under such trying conditions. It is also about the uncertain relationship that develops between two kindred spirits — Mary and Frank. Finally, it is a story about Frank’s redemption.
The audience is taken along for the grim ride and the entertainment comes from the constant gallows humor of these obsessively comedic EMS men, who provide the necessary breaks in the story for audience and drivers alike. Things are so insane that if you don’t laugh, you can succumb to the intensity of the situation by just watching it via film. How insane the situation is, is highlighted from the first radio dispatch where the call is to help a woman in distress because a roach crawled in her ear. This is a dark comedy in the real sense of being dark, with the noir style provided by Scorsese’s frequent screenwriter, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/The Last Temptation of Christ).
The hospital that is on Frank’s route, a place of bedlam and futility, is named Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy, but called by the EMS personnel “Misery” — for a good reason. This is a place where there aren’t enough beds to handle all the victims from gunshots and heart attacks and bad drug trips. The doctors work relentlessly on double shifts. The hospital is filled with wild screams and patients tied to their beds so that they wouldn’t go on a rampage, and utter chaos is in the lobby where security guards menacingly try to keep order.
The first call that Frank goes out on is with Larry (Goodman), his chatty and obese partner, enamored by fast-food places and concerned about not eating the same meal twice in one week. He is planning to soon be in the suburbs running his own private ambulance service.
They respond to a heart attack victim in a walk-up tenement building, where the victim has been dead for a few minutes and the family is huddled around their patriarch, hoping for a miracle. Frank, who is considered to be the best at saving lives, has been working as a paramedic for the past five years. This could be the rescue he needs to save his life, as he desperately tries to save the old man’s life by giving him CPR and shocks to the heart in order to bring back his patient from the dead. As a last resort, he puts on a Sinatra album the old man liked. This seems to give the patient a pulse and the family some hope. The patient’s anxious daughter, the former junkie, Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), who is the actual wife of Cage, forms a bond of friendship instantly with Frank. He will act as a liaison for her to pass on information about her father from the hospital. They will meet together for the next three nights in the chaos of the hospital where her father is just one of many emergencies handled during the night’s graveyard shift, and their ambiguous relationship will center around the reports Frank gives her on the condition of her father.
Frank feels Mary’s pain and wants her love or approval; he desperately is in need of a woman to comfort him, just like she needs his moral support– he looks like a priest to her. We know very little about Frank’s personal life except what little he tells us in the voiceover about his divorce, but he doesn’t tell us why his wife left him, nor do we see where he lives, or who his friends are, or what his interests are other than the job, which seems to be his whole life. The few times we see him out of uniform in civilian clothes, he looks ordinary. In uniform he looks like a God.
Frank’s second partner is the hilarious loud-mouth, Marcus (Ving Rhames), who is a mixture of playboy, gin drinking rogue and Jesus fanatic, with a devastating sense of humor. Marcus’ hope is that God will see to it that he gets through the night. Their night out results in them treating a drug overdosed punk rocker who took a deadly new drug on the scene called “Red Poison” and of Marcus speeding recklessly to another call, which results in the ambulance overturning, leaving them both with minor injuries and lots of nervous laughter over their narrow escape from death.
The partners seem to be getting more intense with each night-shift as the third driver, Tom (Sizemore), points out that the full moon is out and it is Saturday, as he gleefully rubs his hands together expecting plenty of action. Tom is the forceful type; he likes to take matters into his own hands. On his shift the two most memorable things that happen are a drug shoot-out in an apartment building where one victim is dying from gunshot wounds and the other is impaled on the terrace gate (Cliff Curtis), as he jumped from the 16th floor to the 14th to escape his fate. As a coincidence the victim gave Frank some kind of a stress relieving pill the previous night, which Frank took in a moment of weakness as he followed Mary to this drug pad. Frank was concerned that she couldn’t handle the strain any longer of learning about her father’s death, especially when she wasn’t able to put a closure on their stormy relationship by having one last chance to talk to him (she hasn’t even seen her father for the last three years due to an argument). Her father is someone whom Frank actually saved and the hospital might have been able to keep him alive, but Frank thought he heard the man’s voice telling him he didn’t want to live anymore, and so he failed to give him the necessary shocks to keep him alive. The other major incident on this shift was the violent reaction of Tom to the deranged Noel (Marc Anthony), who is completely wasted on drugs and is known to the paramedics as a very troubled man. Noel should have been placed in a mental institution if this was a civilized city, but who now wanders the street taking a baseball bat and knocking out car windows with it. Tom’s way of handling him is to teach him a lesson with a beating, while Frank’s approach is to identify with his insanity and try to communicate as best he can with him.
It becomes apparent that Frank is going bonkers, while the other drivers are handling the job much better than he is. They are getting by: Larry by dreaming of better days to come, Marcus by finding God, and Tom by taking things into his own hands. It is just Frank who is falling completely apart, thinking he must save someone in order to be redeemed. He is especially upset because over the last few months everyone seems to be dying on him. Mary now becomes his only hope. He must either save her from becoming an addict again or she must save him from his ghost-like existence. Mary is likened in his eyes to the Virgin Mary. The kind of relationship that forms between the two is a difficult one to comprehend as they are both caught by their own demons and are so afraid of love and of not being loved, and they are afraid that the tenderness they have for others might drain them and leave them without enough energy for them to save themselves. This all leads up to the film’s final shot where he becomes like the Christ child resting after a long journey in the arms of the Virgin Mary cuddled up next to her, in the bright whiteness of a spiritual light. Could that be his salvation, a spiritual one, the only hope there is for Frank?
By the time the third night-shift ends the audience is strained and left overwhelmed by all the noise from the city streets, the background rock music, the depravity of the hospital, the constant frenetic chatter of the paramedics, and the need for them to have some artificial way to get by their shift. Frank’s way of getting by is through coffee, whiskey, vitamin shots, and living with ghosts–and none of these things work. This film is intense and it drags on for much too long, making its way through a grotesque looking city and a hospital that is likened to a crazy house.
The misery uncovered is catching, like certain diseases. But does the film have something salient to say, as Scorsese seems more comfortable in these surroundings than he did in the foreign turf of his recent films The Age of Innocence and Kundun? Is there entertainment value in this story? That I really don’t know, but I do know that it all seemed too real and that the acting was superb. One couldn’t help but get entangled in the lives of the characters. The Nicolas Cage performance caught the nuances of his character in a bewitching manner; in his crazed EMS role he catches the futility and desperation he feels gnawing at him from inside and displays an engaging chemistry with the three drivers and with Patricia Arquette. Though her performance seemed to be too coy at times and too conveniently vulnerable to be totally credible she, nevertheless, is the perfect counterpoint to his tortured being, sharing with him all the anguish of fighting for survival and the uncertainty of their romance. The ambulance drivers more or less drove home the philosophical points of the film, as they acted out the insanity of the situation they were in and complemented Cage’s mood swings of high and low with their perversive attitudes toward the job.
The photography was mesmerizing, capturing the hostile living conditions of the city and filling the screen at times with the beauty of a fire show amid the sirens and turbulence of the night. In the background we can see the famous city skyscrapers of the city shimmering in the night sky, seemingly changing colors.
I’m glad that Scorsese has made a film that asks a lot of questions of the viewer, questions that take time to answer because they are complex and could best be answered by one’s experience with matters of life and death. From what is mentioned in the story, we learn that there are spirits that pull you one way or the other and sometimes the pull is not to want to live anymore. That should give one something to think about.
Scorsese has made a technically perfect film and an artistic one, but it is one that is not suited for everyone’s taste. Though, the benefits are immense for those who stick with it. Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the finest of the current working film directors and he knows how to provoke an audience to feel the pain of someone else, something that is very difficult to do in this medium. This is a very tough film to honestly say that you thoroughly enjoyed, but what’s more important is to realize how compelling it is. This film, I expect, in the long run, will be better thought of than most films of the ’90s that attempt to focus on the city landscape, including all those films that were so entertaining but in the end were not as nurturing to the soul.
It is easy to compare this film to his masterpiece Taxi Driver and say that both films were about a dying city, about someone who works by driving either a taxi or ambulance at night, and about a similar type of hero who had a tortured soul that needed redemption. It also might be easier to say that the former film was so much better because it had more action and more energy. But I found this film to be more subtle and more optimistic in a spiritual sense. Even its most pressing fault that the subject matter hits too close to the miserable reality of things in the city is not as much a fault, as it is a necessity for allowing the film to be steeped in reality. This film can’t help being anything but disturbing, one that questions living in a modern city. It is not necessarily a better or worse film than the other one, but it is one that has more psychological layers of complexity to it that needs to be looked at more carefully; and, it is a film with a religious message about redemption. It probes and questions, rather than one that overwhelms you with answers.
REVIEWED ON 10/23/99 GRADE: A