By Roderick Heath
1999 was one of the most important years for modern American film, as a rash of works by new auteurs and entries from older ones sparked controversy and conversation right across the new audience of cinephiles. In contrast with end-of-millennium positivism and alt-capitalist dreams of the dot-com boom, political and social cynicism reigned in films after the wasted opportunities of the Clinton administration; the year of the Seattle anti-globalization riots found much rhyme between street and screen. Several of the year’s most striking films, as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix, and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, presented noir-influenced portraits of social disintegration, wars of anarchy and nihilism played out within psyches, societies, and individuals, in hallucinations and digital realms and fantasy worlds, often within a compressed time period—a dark night of the soul indeed.
Scorsese’s impact on other filmmakers was finally becoming indelible, though audiences seemed to prefer him present in spirit rather than in new works themselves. Taxi Driver’s sociopathic spirit possesses Fight Club; Magnolia marries the disparate influence of Scorsese’s with that of his most serious rival for greatest modern American director, Robert Altman. After Casino, Scorsese made two aggressively noncommercial films that expanded his high-montage aesthetic to examine in the conscientious souls of the world. Kundun (1997), a portrait of the young Dalai Lama, is Scorsese’s most abstract film, conjuring a visual tapestry in observing his hero attain a state of grace in the face of suffering and massive loss. Bringing Out the Dead is intricately linked with Kundun, and also with Taxi Driver, to which it stands as a kind of response or repudiation whilst diving back into its nocturne-New York landscape. Scorsese had Paul Schrader pen the script, their first collaboration in 11 years, adapting a novel by former ambulance medic Joe Connelly detailing the pressures of that job in early 1990s New York. Where Travis Bickle surveyed his surroundings from his taxi with utmost misanthropy, Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) feels soul-crushing sympathy for the city that pulsates around him with crime, social disasters, and countless ghosts. Frank’s worked as an ambulance medic for five years, on graveyard shift. It’s been months since he saved anyone, since his ill-fated encounter with 18-year-old streetwalker Rose (Cynthia Roman), where attempts to get her breathing again resulted in her oxygen tube constantly going into her stomach instead of her lungs.
Now Frank is assailed by troubled sleep and nights at work alternating between near-hysteria and catatonic observation, jolting back shots of bourbon to get him through, seeing Rose’s face projected onto every potential patient on the streets. The film unfolds on three nights, on each of which Frank has a different partner; on Thursday, chubby, cheery, ambitious Larry (John Goodman); on Friday, evangelizing sex-obsessive Marcus (Ving Rhames), and on Saturday, sleazy nutball Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore), Frank’s ex-permanent partner, with whom he was once “legends in their own lunch hour,” as their sarcastic dispatcher (Scorsese) recalls. On the Thursday night, hot and greasy, with a full moon to boot, Frank and Larry are called to a family residence to treat a mannamed Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson) who’s suffered a heart attack. As the medics labour to restart the man’s heart, Frank advises his family to play music the man likes—Sinatra—mainly to give them something to do. Lo and behold, the man starts to respond. Amongst the family, it’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) who seems both the most anguished and alert; she wants to ride in the ambulance, but Frank instead advises her to drive her family, who need her composure.
Frank and Larry truck Burke to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, called Our Lady of Misery by the mordant medicos, a Hades whose Cerberus is fierce security guard Griss (Afemo Omilami). He constantly faces down a jabbering army of relatives and hangabouts with his signature threat: “Don’t make me take off my sunglasses!” Inside, charge nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt) sarcastically interrogates myriad alcoholics and junkies; the hallways are crowded with casualties; the patient’s arrival is greeted with groans from the doctor on duty, Hazmat (Nestor Serrano); “You told me he was dead, flat-line!” “He got better.” Mary recognizes one patient, Noel (Marc Anthony), pest to everyone else but someone her father had let stay in the family flat in his troubled youth. Noel’s strapped to his stretcher, crying for water, which no one will provide as Hazmat has diagnosed him with a liver condition. Mary unties him, and Noel runs to a fountain to guzzle. Mary explains with glassy tears that she can’t stand to see anyone, let alone Noel, tied down.
Partly out of pity and partly because he’s attracted to her bruised and melancholy beauty, over the next two days, Frank buys Mary pizza in between jobsand gives her rides to the hospital. In one gorgeous moment, the pair sits in the rear of the ambulance, rocking against each other, and Mary can barely restrain laughter. Mary offloads her anxieties to the routinely receptive Frank, explaining her and her father’s troubled relationship with her father—she had wished he would die, but now only longs for a chance to talk to him once more. Mary’s a recovering drug addict. “You probably picked me up once or twice,” she muses to Frank.
The medics like to ride to the rescue in life-and-death situations, and feel insulted when, too often the case, they merely cart around a regular clientele of substance abusers, mentally ill, and homeless. Also troubling them is a deadly new street drug, Red Death, that is causing a procession of ODs. With Scorsese’s customary propelling soundtrack, most importantly Van Morrison’s scorching blues “T.B. Sheets”, the film moves within tones of blood red and bright white light against molasses black; Frank feels like he lives in an underworld, and Robert Richardson’s camera aids Scorsese in conjuring an urban tale told by Poe.
Frank and Larry soon deal with Noel again; he’s suicidal and lays in the middle of a street to be run over. Frank gets him to come back to the hospital on the promise of giving him his choice of suicide methods (“Pills. Definitely pills!”). They’re diverted to a multiple shooting in which two young men have been wounded, Red Death vials scattered around them. Frank drafts Noel’s help as he tries to save one in the race back to the hospital; they arrive just as the man, who tearfully vows that he does not want to die and will join the army, expires. Noel promptly runs off at the sight of raw death.
Bringing Out the Dead shows impeccable tonal command. The film could have been a grueling or boring exercise, but Scorsese handles beautifully the alternation of adrenalin-provoking jobs and nocturnal chaos—the sheer visceral thrill and black humor of which keeps the medics, and us, interested—with moments of calm and melancholy, bleary daylight exhaustion and peace-seeking. Frank hopes he’ll be fired by his frazzled, motherly, male boss Captain Barney (Arthur Nascarella). But no one gets fired from this job, they’re too hard-up for staff, and wear and tear on individuals is inevitable; “I promise, I’ll fire you tomorrow!” Barney assures.Frank meditates on the pleasure of saving a life: “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see…God has passed through you…why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”
Frank’s three partners all contrast Frank in their ways of coping, or not coping. Larry plans his meals assiduously and anticipates a day when “it’ll be Boss Larry calling the shots.” Marcus radiates religious passion, and the film’s black comedy highlight has Marcus making a bunch of Goths hold hands and pray whilst Frank resuscitates one of their friends from a Red Death overdose. He also taunts prostitutes with handfuls of cash and flirts relentlessly over the CB with Love (Queen Latifah), the alternate dispatcher whom he once took out on a date that ended with her hitting him over the head. When Marcus decides, against Frank’s pleas, to make an extra trip for the night and guns the motor, he crashes, flipping the vehicle on its side, a wreck from which Frank crawls in giddy laughter. Tom Wolls is completely split at the seams, on the far side of the chasm Frank’s trying to avoid falling into; Tom plans to beat Noel to death for being a nuisance.
The film is littered with wry observations of modern American racial and sexual politics; Griss can be seen reading a book called Black Robes, White Justice; Marcus claims “I never mixes my seed;” Mary, in her druggy daze, questions if Frank his Galahad attentiveness means he wants to fuck her (“Everybody else has…”). But despite the social-realist concerns of the film, Scorsese gives the film a surreal, voodoo-noir edge. Religious imagery and references are implied constantly—from the Plague cites (its title, the Red Death) inward—not with a proselytizing purpose, but with a conscientious irony. The names of the hospitals, even the schools Frank and Mary attended, present ingrained religious ideas that underlie these strenuous efforts to survive and heal. The pair are both from this neighborhood, but where Mary’s family stuck around, Frank’s took the path of white flight and may account in part for his guilty zeal. Frank encounters a “virgin birth” when he and Marcus help two Hispanic kids in a crack house, the male of whom assures them his girl can’t be pregnant because, as he proudly announces, “We’re virgins!” Frank also attends resurrections—of Burke and the Goth boy—and equivalents of crucifixions.
There’s also a seductive devil. Mary spends a second grinding night at the hospital, with her father constantly going into cardiac arrest, fighting for his life. In the morning, she goes to see Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis), a local drug kingpin, in desperate need of some emotional numbing. Frank promises to watch out for her and eventually follows her up to Coates’ apartment, a tranquil harbor where Cy holds court with his afro-haired girlfriend and various henchmen. Cy is a silk-tongued, effetely friendly magician of intoxicants who decries the Red Death as “poison”; he has his boys looking to deal with its dealers, and proposes himself as a community-minded man, which Mary later ridicules, knowing that Cy or one of his goons put the bullet in Noel’s head that has made him crazy. With Mary unconscious, Frank lets Cy slip him a downer. Frank plummets into a hallucinogenic dream where he struggles to aid an army of ghosts in escaping the earth, and then relives Rose’s death, where snow rises back into the sky. Frank awakens in screaming rage and drags the stoned Mary from Cy’s place, before collapsing in her apartment. When he awakes, he muses beatifically on the joys of washing his hands with her scented bars of soap.
Cage was in one of his periodic disgraces for appearing in too many action films (around this time, I heard Cage described by one critic as a ham and by another as wooden) after his Oscar win for the tawdry, faux-realist Leaving Las Vegas (1996). But Cage fulfills his role as Frank with a haunted grace and hard emotional commitment. Like another underrecognized, late-career classic, Kurosawa’s Red Beard, Bringing Out the Dead is a statement of the necessity of human relationships and altruistic responsibility. Frank seeks fulfillment from helping people, a dedication little rewarded and brutally self-abnegating. As in Casino, Scorsese uses the fate of the villain as a catalyst, except that where Nicky’s grim end underlined a disgust in violence, here Cy presents Frank an opportunity to save a life when the Red Death dealers shoot up Cy’s flat, driving Cy to try leaping from his balcony. Cy ends up skewered on the railing, dangling floors above a crowd crying for a spectacle. The police rescuers who don’t care if he falls or not; Frank risks his life to prevent him plummeting to earth as Cy crows joyfully as the sparks of their cutting torches light the sky like fireworks.
But saving a life doesn’t relieve Frank. He decides what he wants is violence, and, by now terribly strung out, lets Tom talk him into helping him assault Noel, everyone’s victim. This involves following Noel into a red-soaked labyrinth where the homeless sleep. It’s like walking into hell; the image of sin that confronts him is Tom cracking Noel’s bones with a baseball bat. Frank drives Tom away and takes Noel to be patched up. Frank realises he needs to learn to let go, which he enacts by plugging Mr. Burke’s monitors to his own body and letting the man, whom he has imagined is begging for death, die. He then goes to tell Mary of his death, in the course of which he imagines he’s apologizing to Rose as well. “It’s not your fault,” Mary/Rose replies.
The final shot is of Mary cradling Frank on her bed, white light flooding the frame. It’s the most hopeful final image of any Scorsese film to that point, especially for Scorsese’s most likable, if troubled, male-female partnering since Charlie and Theresa in Mean Streets. Frank, like Jesus and the Dalai Lama before him in the Scorsese canon, is a selfless figure who is rewarded for his sheer courage in the face of intimidating odds; but Frank is an ordinary guy, rather than a religious icon. He is great simply in his willingness to recognize and still fight his limitations to serve the people around him. Bringing Out the Dead effortlessly outclasses the shallow social commentary of Fight Club or that year’s Best Picture winner, American Beauty, not just in technique, but for its feel for the gnarled, aching landscape of modern urban life. It has a breadth of heart and mind to grant its heroes a true sense of the world beyond their own tawdry frustrations.