Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, John Goodman, Marc Anthony, Cliff Curtis, Mary Beth Hurt, Aida Turturro, Martin Scorsese, Queen Latifah.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and blood).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 23, 1999.
It's quite appropriate that world-class filmmaker Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader have teamed up once more after their critically lauded work in such films as 1976's "Taxi Driver" and 1980's "Raging Bull," because "Bringing Out the Dead" is Scorsese's most impressive, dramatically sound piece of celluloid in at least the last seven years. Grim, unrelentingly downbeat, yet fascinating and thought-provoking, the film is one of those rare big-budget efforts that doesn't have a plot hook or a flashy storyline to bring in audiences, which is unfortunate. Instead, most of the major developments occur within the central character, as he struggles to find meaning and resolution in a life that often seems too depressing to bear.
Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a worn-out ambulance driver working the graveyard shift on the mean streets of New York City. Night after discouraging night, Frank is paired up with a coworker to drive around with, picking up calls on their CBs, and traveling to assist people who are either fatally ill or hurt, or too far gone down their own paths of destruction to be helped. Constantly transporting patients to Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy hospital, which is always so jam-packed that many patients are usually left unattended, Frank, in narration, tells us about how he can't even remember the last time he saved another person's life. A sign that maybe he should quit his job before he goes completely crazy, he has begun to see the image of Rose, a deceased 18-year-old girl he failed to save, who solemnly asks him, "Why did you kill me, Frank?"
Set over the period of exactly three days on the job, the first night Frank is paired up with Larry (John Goodman), an obese, somewhat unhappy foodaholic. One of their first calls is to save an older man who has collapsed on the floor and gone into cardiac arrest. Acquiring a faint pulse, he is taken to the hospital, but with little hope of pulling through. This is where he meets Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the grown daughter of the man, who starts to hang around the hospital, praying her father will survive just so she can make amends with him (they haven't spoken in a few years). Over the following two nights, in which Frank is paired with the happy-go-lucky, preacher-imitating Marcus (Ving Rhames) and the loudmouthed Walls (Tom Sizemore), he forms a sort of infatuation with Mary and attempts to get close to her. This is not, however, the starting point for a blossoming romance, as it becomes clear what Frank and Mary need is each other, but more to come to terms with themselves and their own personal demons.
Motion pictures about a person's own redemption have been on the resurgence as of late, most recently in the devastatingly profound "American Beauty" and the promising, but ultimately uneven "Fight Club," and "Bringing Out the Dead" belongs with the former movie in successfully telling the story of a man basically at the crossroads of his life who wonders what the point of it all is. Films concerning one's redemption is a tricky subject that must be told with utmost care and subtlety, so as to not make it cornball, and in "Bringing Out the Dead," we are put directly in the life of Frank Pierce, a memorably likable creation who may not be as unforgettable or stirring as that of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in "Taxi Driver," but who could be?
Quick-paced, but still satisfyingly dedicating time to the characters at hand, the film is comparable to a rollercoaster ride through the job of an ambulance driver, with the camera often moving at a furious, off-kilter rate, and the film speed increased so as to parallel the way life passes you by. Cinematographer Robert Richardson ably handles the feat, and aiding it along is the rock soundtrack that is a strangely appropriate and stylistically brilliant. When the camera does stop for a breather, we get elongated, important takes that try to capture human nature, none more so than in a marvelous scene where Frank and Mary are sitting beside each other in the back of an ambulance, played to the enlightening song by 10,000 Maniacs, "These Are Days."
In the crucial role of Frank Pierce, Nicolas Cage has returned to the type of challenging roles he was taking in the mid-'90s, such as his Oscar-winning work in 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas." Choosing to work with a master such as Martin Scorsese (whose voice, along with that of Queen Latifah's, show up in cameos) was one of the best career moves Cage could have made, and his Frank is a man filled with interior conflict that we learn through his personality and ponderous narration.
As his three main coworkers, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore all show up for about a thirty-minute stretch each, and leave lasting impressions on the viewer, particularly Goodman, whose character of Larry, we sense, has more going on underneath than meets the eye. Additionally, Latino pop singer Marc Anthony shows up in a crucial supporting role and is outstanding as Noel, a repeat offender who gets himself into trouble on a daily basis, stemming from a hard drug he once took that left his mind altered.
The heart and soul of the film lies on Mary Burke, an ex-junkie who has straightened her life out in the last year and now wishes to rekindle her relationship with her father before he dies. Mary is played by Patricia Arquette, Cage's wife and an underrated actress in her own right, who gives a powerful, quietly shattering performance that is so much deeper on every level than in her other current film, "Stigmata." Arquette and Cage, who are working together for the first time, turn out to have a great deal more chemistry than expected, and even when you feel as if their relationship may not be one with romance, but simply compassion for each other, you find yourself desperately hoping for them to get together.
"Bringing Out the Dead" is a highly assured, meditative look on the fragility of life, and it also acts as both an intriguing guide into the profession of ambulance drivers, as well as the atmosphere within the walls of a hospital, which, from secondhand experience, is realistic in almost every one of its details. Returning to his New York roots after several years, Scorsese is near the top of his game, as he has crafted a truly powerful, delicately balanced motion picture of both real poignancy and humor. "Bringing Out the Dead" may not have the wide commercial prospects of, let's say, Cage's haphazard, but financially successful, 1997 action product, "Con Air," but is a remarkably superior creation. It's not too often that a film this innovative and emotionally gratifying is made, and it should be embraced.
©1999 by Dustin Putman