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Bringing Out the Dead

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 5 November 1999


Directed by Martin Scorsese

 Starring Nicolas Cage, 
Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, 
Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, 
Marc Anthony, and Cliff Curtis.

Screenplay by Paul Schrader, 
based on the novel by Joe Connelly. 

In 1976, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver exploded from the screen like a flaming molotov cocktail. More frightening than any conventional horror film, Taxi Driver blindsided its viewers with a crazed protagonist, whose inability to connect with others -- coupled with his day-by-day immersion in the red-light hell-pits of New York City -- becomes a recipe for carnage. If ever there was a film destined for the time capsule, which accurately captured the motives, routines, and sad logic that packed the twisted minds of urban vigilantes and assassins, Taxi Driver was it.  Viewers attained a reluctant understanding of the frustration oozing from the cranium of disturbed cabby Travis Bickle.  Later, they winced at his destructive means of dealing with rejection by the seemingly uncaring masses teeming around him. 

Taxi Driver also projected a certain renegade, youthful attitude in its filmmaking style: dreamlike, slow motion sequences paraded alongside sinister bird’s eye perspectives, before a blood-soaked finale threatened the film with an X rating. During a year when the feel-good boxing fantasy Rocky took Best Picture honors at The Oscars, few films had dared to paint violent, seedy characters with such intimate, truthful strokes. 

Fast forward to 1999, and Scorsese’s latest offering, Bringing Out the Dead, echoes the Dante’s Inferno of Taxi Driver. There’s a tortured hero on the brink of a breakdown. There’s a doomed female in need of salvation. There’s an inner-city landscape of crazed street people, pregnant hookers, and suavely sinister drug lords. However, it’s clear that the veteran director and his screenwriting partner Paul Schrader, who teamed up with Scorsese twenty three years ago to bring Travis Bickle to life, are seeing life through the eyes of mellowing pros.  They’re not the restless upstarts they were while parenting Taxi Driver.  Salvation, not slaughter, is prioritized in this surprisingly understated, optimistic trip into the trenches of paramedic life. 

Nicholas Cage plays Frank, a burnout EMT whose life is spent prowling the streets in his ambulance, waiting for calls from his dispatcher and answering them like a mailman tossing letters from postbox to postbox. Oh sure, the work is harrowing, but Frank is so accustomed to the life-and-death routine that all the drama has been sapped out of this medical rat race. This isn’t ER, where the camera’s jittery movements project a pulse-raising immediacy. Instead, Frank’s rather bleak adventures are matter-of-fact and somber. When he bursts into the apartment of a heart attack patient and performs CPR, there’s a quiet hush to the proceedings. Then he breaks the silence, by instructing the dying man’s daughter to “play some music that he liked. ”Such an unlikely icebreaker establishes an awkward relationship between Mary, the daughter trying to shake a drug-addled past, and Frank, who gains a sort of human sanctuary in their connection. 

It’s a bond that Frank is unable to find in the neurotic company of his EMT partners.  There’s Larry (John Goodman), who refuses to let the horrors of the job come between his mouth and a good subway sandwich.  Marcus (Ving Rhames) guzzles booze on the job but relies on scripture to give meaning to his plight, while the bullying Walls (Tom Sizemore) allows a sort of gleeful psychosis to charge his battery. To this twisted brute, the sight of blood just adds to the excitement of another night on the town. 

At the heart of Bringing Out the Dead is the ghost of Rose, a young transient whose life Frank failed to save. Like Iris, the teenage prostitute whom Bickle attempts to “rescue” from a life on the street, Rose becomes a persistent obsession. Her haunted eyes peer from the faces of other unlucky patients, her specter lurking behind tenement doorways and down dark alleys. Meanwhile, Frank walks a thin tightrope of sanity, losing patients at an escalating rate and desperate to save a life. Frank’s twisted logic dictates that by rescuing another, perhaps he can shake the phantom of Rose, before finding some long-sought refuge in the arms of Mary. 

The best thing about Bringing Out the Dead is its portrayal of Frank’s redundant routine, as he spins circles in this dizzying health care carousel. As dispatchers instruct him to seek out a familiar gallery of drunks, transients, and schizophrenics, Cage depicts the despair that comes with rescuing the same dependent faces night after night. Noel (Marc Anthony), a psychotic street person, is a revolving door presence at Frank’s hospital.  Indeed, his wild-eyed face and impatient demands for water are as familiar as the haggard nurses and security guards roaming its halls. Schrader’s wise screenplay takes pains to show that the majority of these human rescue resources are spent catering to a select audience of repeat customers. 

Meanwhile, there are those like Cy Coates (played by the familiar Cliff Curtis, of Three Kings), a drug dealer who plays host at The Oasis, a sinister sanctuary for the addicted masses. But unlike the relationship between Harvey Keitel’s prostitute-peddling Sport and De Niro’s Bickle, his pent-up nemesis and eventual executioner, there is a low-key amiability when Frank and Cy spar off.  Indeed, Frank is such an obvious bundle of nerves, Cy doesn’t expend much effort to interest him in the ingestion a mind-altering pill or two.  Later, when the frayed paramedic storms into The Oasis to retrieve the backsliding Mary, the scene doesn’t end in a halo of gunfire like Taxi Driver did when Travis unleashes his wrath at Iris’ house of ill repute. Instead, Cy lets his guard down and lets the duo leave peacefully. God knows, he’ll have other customers. 

Cage is tailor-made for the role of Frank, a far more sympathetic figure than De Niro’s creepy cabby. Frank is out to save the masses: Bickle’s destructive quest to remove Iris from her shackles was also a self-serving catharsis. Frank demonstrates a sincere empathy with his patients, where Travis proved entirely unable to relate to anyone in his lonely urban bubble. With his haunted eyes and edgy ticks, Cage is eccentric enough to project a man on the verge of losing his hold on reality. On the other hand, he’s always tempered such weirdness with a sympathetic edge.  When he bashes in car windows with the manic Noel, it’s as if he knows he’s just a step away from street-bound insanity himself. He could be Noel.  Later, when Frank rescues this sad case from the sadistic Walls, the good-hearted paramedic realizes that his humanity is in check, even if his mental balance isn’t.  

Goodman is perfect as the food-obsessed Larry, who bundles up his on-the-job identity like a tidy sleeping bag when he’s not sounding the ambulance siren.  Larry’s a master at compartmentalization of his bloody job routine. Rhames’ Marcus conveys a smug inner peace, as the Bible-quoting Christian who perceives each life saving deed as a God-directed miracle.  The most memorable supporting role belongs to Sizemore. It’s difficult to find another actor who boasts such a degenerate smorgasbord of psychos on his acting resume: Walls merely adds to the list. “All right,” he cackles as a dispatcher places a call to his ambulance.  “More blood!”When the red stops flowing, Walls creates his own.  Watching he and Frank take a hallucinatory joyride into the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen, to the bouncy tune of REM’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, is a priceless image of two men negotiating fantasy and reality. 

Bringing Out the Dead ends with Frank finding his redemption. But it’s a kinder, gentler resolution than Taxi Driver’s mid-seventies malevolence. After his spiritual foray into Zen Buddhism, 1996’s Kundun, perhaps Scorsese is attempting to pay penance for the violent images of his past work. It’s a refreshing contrast. The final scenes of Taxi Driver exploded with pent-up frustration. In Bringing Out the Dead, the guy who makes a living cleaning up the carnage left by madmen like Bickle is afforded a night of peace. It’s well deserved. 

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