Bringing Out the Dead
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore
Director:

Martin Scorsese

Writing credits: Paul Schrader
Distributor:  
Rated: R
  (USA 1999)

Reaffirming his positions as the master of the urban landscape and as America's greatest living filmmaker, Martin Scorcese has served up a small masterpiece in BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, a ghostly elegy that stands as one of the best films of the year. A historical bookend to Scorcese's other paean to New York's seedy side, Taxi Driver, the quiet desperation of his latest work is a scalding-hot reminder of his talent and adoration of Manhattan's otherworldly cosmicity.

Scorcese manages to wring career-best performances out of many in his cast, including Nicholas Cage, who could score another Oscar nomination for his turn as a paramedic at the boiling point. His career as a 'grief mop', as he says, has caused him to see more death and pain than he can handle. He blames himself for a young girl's death a few months ago, and her ghost has begun appearing to him around the streets of New York. He's realized that savng lives and helping people is a rarity in his line of work, and his more regular duty -- that of witness to the passages of death, and bearer of comfort to the living -- is slowly but surely killing him. He strikes up a friendship/relationship with the daughter of one of his charges (Patricia Arquette), a former junkie. His partners, each a borderline personality in their own right, all find different ways of dealing with the horrors they encounter nightly. Indeed, Scorcese and writer Schrader quietly imply that insanity may be the only defense to the pain and suffering of humanity.

The colors these two gentlemen paint BRINGING OUT THE DEAD in are familiar territory for both of them -- the red-hot sirens and lights of New York City. Not the Giuliani-disinfected, Disneyfied version of New York that now exists, though...this is the dark underbelly of New York, as it was for Travis Bickle, Scorcese's other late-night Manhattan driver. The garish signs, the piles of trash, the street denizens...you can almost smell the odors, almost feel the rain on your skin. Scorcese and Schrader create the hyper-reality of New York like no other cinematic artists can. It's bracingly refreshing to have both men back on the turf that established their talents decades ago.

While Cage is the most overrated talent in Hollywood today, he finds a great deal of depth in his role, as does Arquette, who has never been more nuanced or exciting. Colorfully funny supporting turns by Goodman, Rhames, and Sizemore keep the film from bogging down in its own depressive aura. Salsa recoridng star Marc Anthony builds upon his underrecognized, striking Broadway debut last year in Paul Simon's The Caveman with his tender and brave portrayal of Noel, a wild-eyed junkie. Seemingly insane, our prejudices as audience members are exposed when, halfway through the film, we're told that his maurauding behavior is due to a bullet lodged in his brain.

Almost paralyzing in its intensity, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is riveting, frantic, and quickly paced. The feeling one may be left with, however, is one of quiet. The film's religious allegories and spiritual questions lead to introspection and cautious peacefulness. At its heart, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is not only about suffering, but about finding a way through it to the other side...both in death, and in life.

Sometimes the worst Scorsese film is more engaging than the best film by a second-tier director. And while there are moments that are intoxicating in BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, the film arrives to theatres in need of resuscitation.

Nicholas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a New York City EMT on a losing streak - while being overworked for months, he hasn't saved a life in as long. As of late, he has been haunted by the ghosts of those who he has tried to save. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD follows a weekend in the life of Frank, and his various ambulance driver partners, played by Goodman, Rhames, and Sizemore. Patricia Arquette plays Mary, the daughter of one of Frank's recent pick-ups. While Dad is on life support and hovering somewhere between life and death through the weekend, Frank and Mary connect with one another.

Scorsese and Schrader (who have collaborated on three films prior to this one - Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and The Last Temptation of Christ) paint a dark, dirty, grim view of the world and of those in it, a specialty of the collaborative duo. In each of these films, we see a central character in search of redemption. In BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, however, it is difficult to find a reason to care about the central characters. While we know that the central character of Frank was married and divorced, and that he used to be one of the best ambulance drivers in the city, we aren't "fortunate" enough to see the downfall of the man. We are instead brought in as Frank hits rock bottom, where he remains for a majority of the film.

Cage tries to bring the same bag of tricks to the table for BRINGING OUT THE DEAD that won him an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. The alcohol dependence. The hollow cheeks and sagging eyes. The low drone to his voice. Unfortunately, they are not nearly as effective here. Arquette is equally unappetizing as Mary. While she at least shows some sparks of life from time to time, her performance flatlines as the movie creeps on.

The real treasures of this film are in the performances of the supporting cast. Goodman, Rhames, and Sizemore are all equally effective in their individualized quirky roles as partners to Frank over the weekend. They function almost in a Dickensian "Ghost of EMT Past, Present, and Future" manner, and offer texture and style to their performances. Also, Marc Anthony, a relative newcomer, is fabulous as Noel, a drug-addicted, water-guzzling, window-smashing antihero.

The major flaw of this film is that it never accurately lands within any given reality, and much of the thought in the film remains unresolved by the filmmakers. The film's cinematography dabbles in stylized soft focus, or high-speed cut-frame of the ambulance racing through the city, or choppy edits where sound begins before the visual images are presented. And these are all fine choices to make, but it feels as though too many are being made. Perhaps if Scorsese was working from a smaller palette, the film might have made more impact.

The same rule applies to the thoughts contained within the film. There are often times too many loose themes running amok here. Biblical and religious symbols and metaphors are sprinkled liberally throughout the film. A drug called the "Red Death" is always referred to as a plague that is devouring the people of the city, but in both of these themes, we are never quite sure what to do with the images and thoughts being presented.

Still, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is as haunting at moments as it is scattered at others. Scorsese is on sure footing in dredging through the filth of the Underworld, and presents moments of clarity in this muck that shine brilliantly. His portrait of an inner-city Emergency Room is a chilling one, making one hope to never have need of such a facility. His quirky representation of The Oasis, a laid-back, peace-loving den of drugs is wonderful.

Ultimately, however, just as the inhabitants of this city lose interest in the world around them, so we too, lose interest in the world presented to us

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 1999 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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