Bringing Out the Dead [DVD]
Screenplay : Paul Schrader (based on the novel by Joe Connelly)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Frank Pierce), Patricia Arquette (Mary Burke), John Goodman (Larry), Ving Rhames (Marcus), Tom Sizemore (Tom Wolls), Marc
In the past, whenever director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader have worked together, the result has been an introspective, deeply spiritual film about a character who is trying to find redemption. Their previous three collaborations--"Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988)--had at their core a deep spirituality and a hunger to understand what redemption means in a violent, unstable world.
Now we can add to that list "Bringing Out the Dead," a harrowing, darkly comic tale about Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a graveyard-shift ambulance paramedic who feels that, rather than playing the angel of mercy, he is trapped playing the angel of death. When the film opens, he tells us in voice-over narration that he hasn't saved a victim in months. "After a while, I grew to understand that my life was less about saving lives than about bearing witness," he says. One look at his distraught, hollow eyes tells us that Frank is burned out. He's on the edge, and it doesn't look like it will take much more to push him over.
"Bringing Out the Dead" follows Frank over three nights, during which he hits the bottom and eventually finds redemption in an unexpected way. In many ways, "Bringing Out the Dead" can be seen as a companion piece to the first Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, "Taxi Driver." Both films are about lost men who prowl the streets of New York at night, coming into contact with the seedy products of urban desolation. And, ironically enough, both Travis Bickle and Frank Pierce eventually find their salvation by purposefully becoming an angel of death, although Frank goes about it in a drastically different manner.
The tone of "Bringing Out the Dead" is wildly uneven, ranging from outright comedy to horrifying desolation. Some scenes and many of the characters are absolutely hilarious, including a hospital security guard who constantly threatens, "Don't make me take off my sunglasses." Other scenes are gut-wrenching in their naturalistic horror, including a scene where Frank and one of his partners help a homeless woman give birth to twins in a dilapidated high-rise, and Frank is left holding a stillborn in his hands.
And then there are the ghosts--they stand on dark street corners and stare at Frank in his ambulance with glassy, accusing stares that ask, "Why couldn't you save me?" Frank is especially haunted by the specter of an 18-year-old homeless girl whom he was unable to save. Frank sees her everywhere, and in one of the most memorable scenes, every person standing on a street corner takes on her face.
Few directors could manage such a balancing act of comedy and horror, but Scorsese pulls it off brilliantly. He has always been a fantastically visual and aural director, and here he and cinematographer Robert Richardson film from bent camera angles, contrast neon lights with perpetual darkness, and employ a thumping soundtrack that mixes pop music from R.E.M. to the Clash to paint a unique portrait of the medical world that serves Hell's Kitchen in the early 1990s. And it's not a pretty picture.
Dirty, overcrowded hospitals that have to refuse patients are the norm. Instead of pristine, white hospital corridors suggesting health and sanitation, the hospital walls are covered with grungy green tiles that remind us of sickness and gangrene. Doctors and nurses who were probably once idealistic are now cynical and aggravated. This is best demonstrated by the head nurse who is seen counseling drug addicts and alcoholics who she sees on an irritatingly regular basis: "Why should we help you?" she asks a weeping crackhead. "Did we stuff the cocaine up your nose?"
Schrader's script (based on the critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel by John Connelly) mixes a tableau of eccentric characters. Over the course of the film, Frank has three partners. First, the angry and obese Larry (John Goodman); then, the flamboyant evangelical Marcus (Ving Rhames); and, finally, the psychotic Tom (Tom Sizemore). All of these characters are vastly different, but each of them possesses his own brand of energy that Frank is lacking. Seeing Frank next to any one of them demonstrates just how burnt out he is.
Through the film, Frank develops a relationship with Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), a young woman whose father has had a heart attack and is slowly wasting away in a vegetative state. Although their scenes together are the weakest part of the film, Mary still has an important role to play in Frank's redemption. She is a girl with a past, and in her Frank sees the possibilities of hope and renewal.
Of course, Frank is trapped in his haunted despair, but, as the film makes clear, there is always redemption. Frank finds it in strange places, including the Oasis, a drug lair run by a smooth-talking dealer named Cy (Cliff Curtis). But, if Frank's salvation is not exactly traditional, neither is the movie as a whole. Part comedy, part drama, part existential horror film, "Bringing Out the Dead" has all the marks of an artist deeply committed to his vision.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby Surround 2.0
Extras: Two theatrical trailers; interviews with cast and crew
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Video: The anamorphic widescreen transfer is virtually flawless. "Bringing Out the Dead" is a complex visual film, and Scorsese utilizes a great deal of contrast and severe lighting to heighten the emotional and surrealistic impact of the film. Therefore, there are a number of scenes that have areas of the frame that are brightly, almost glaringly lit, while other parts of the frame are nearly pitch black. The transfer handles these scenes with precision and detail, as it does the film's high-contrast color scheme that often employs neon lighting.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is likewise excellent. Much of the film is scored to an eclectic assortment of rock music, all of which is well-balanced and deep without being overpowering. Sound level is good, especially considering that the film moves rapidly from complete silence to jarring sound effects and music.
Extras: The disc has relatively few extras, which include two theatrical trailers and roughly 11 minutes worth of on-camera interviews with director Martin Scorsese, writer John Connelly, and actors Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, and Ving Rhames. The interviews with the actors are mostly worthless, as they spend most of their time on-camera congratulating each other on how great they are to work with (the only exception is Cage who gives brief account of how he rode along with actual paramedics to research the role). The isolated moments with Scorsese and Connelly, however, are insightful and interesting. Scorsese is always fascinating to listen to because he is one of the few directors who can clearly and passionately articulate what his work is about. Too bad more of the interview time wasn't devoted to him.
©1999, 2000 James Kendrick