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Scorsese and Schrader’s ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ (1999) Deserves Another Look

Celebrating the lesser known works of great artists in the movies….

It would probably be fair to say that Bringing Out the Dead is among Martin Scorsese’s least distinguished motion pictures; certainly it is one of his least revisited and remarked upon. Released in 1999, directly after the tepidly received and moderately controversial Kundun (1997), it became the great director’s second commercial flop in a row. This, despite the fact that it starred the recently red-hot Nicolas Cage, who only two years before had scored with the one-two punch of Face/Off and Con-Air, and who already had an Oscar in his back pocket.

Nevertheless, Bringing Out the Dead marks the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who previously teamed up to produce the fiery classics Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and the infamous The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Surely that’s more than enough justification to take another glance at this, their final and least loved creative offspring. 

Nicolas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a burnt out paramedic who has been hearing ghostly voices and seeing the face of a girl who died on his watch, as he cruises the streets of New York. Then one night he saves an old man in cardiac arrest, and rushes him to the dilapidated hospital nearby, where he hovers between life and death. Meanwhile Pierce and the man’s daughter, a recovering drug-addict played by Patricia Arquette, develop a deepening friendship.

Of the movies previously mentioned, Bringing Out the Dead most resembles Scorsese’s seminal masterpiece, Taxi Driver. In fact it seems hell-bent on inviting the comparison. Hollow eyed protagonist staring out from behind the wheel at the creepy late night denizens of New York? Check! Monotone voice over? Check. As if to hammer the point home Scorsese even chose to shoot the ambulance driving through thick clouds of steam, as he did to iconic effect in his earlier movie.

At first glance, demanding that this movie be set against one of their signature hits was a poor creative and commercial choice, as almost inevitably the comparison leaves Bringing Out the Dead looking, if not dead, then at least in need of a check up. This is a shame, as it’s tonally a very different movie. Where Taxi Driver is about disillusionment turning to bloody purpose, Bringing Out the Dead supplies gallows humour and hope, as Pierce and his fellow paramedics get up to all kinds of wild antics before duty sends them striding into tragic scenes, their pristine shirts shimmering with angelic whiteness.

Perhaps another reason for Bringing Out the Dead’s failure is that it simply isn’t compelling enough. The plot has no direction, instead it just circles a number of recurring characters and scenes, returning to them again and again with little or no sense of progression. For a movie that spends a lot of time driving us from place to place, the feeling that we’re left with is that we’re going nowhere fast.

Cage may also have had a detrimental effect on this movie’s chances of success. Despite the streak of money making hits the star managed to string together in the mid-nineties, the actor’s three releases leading up to Bringing Out the Dead were City of Angels (1998), Snake Eyes (1998) and 8mm (1999), which would have quickly nullified much of Cage’s commercial appeal. This was an overexposed star whose bizarre, over-egged acting style had presumably started to grate on audiences. Nonetheless, he is well cast here, as his already well-worn shtick is entirely appropriate for the portrayal of such a frazzled character, even if there are moments when Scorsese might have asked him to dial things down a touch. 

Now let’s focus on the parts of Bringing Out the Dead that unequivocally succeed. First of all the film is very funny. The bantering dialogue is first class and among Schrader’s best work, comparable to the unvarnished humour of Blue Collar (1978), one of Schrader’s most celebrated movies. But it’s the secondary characters that get most of the laughs. From a hospital security guard who threatens to take off his sunglasses when the waiting room gets out of hand, to a Jesus loving paramedic, played by a never better Ving Rhames, this movie does cackling hysterically in the face of grim death better than most.

The film is also a perfect demonstration of Scorsese flexing his directorial muscles, as he uses every trick at his disposal to keep Bringing Out the Dead pulsating along. The movie is crammed with music, a typical Scorsese trope, with Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets forming a grubbily compelling refrain as Pierce’s ambulance tears through the night towards yet another dire emergency. Visually the movie is equally unrelenting in its determination to keep one’s attention. The ambulance washes everything in flashing red lights, while inside and out the vehicle is shot from all conceivable angles and perspectives, with quick cuts, and sped up sequences thrown in to provide a sense of kinetic energy. If this is a movie that doesn’t go anywhere, at least it’s a joy ride.

Perhaps the most telling sequence in the movie involves Pierce holding onto an upscale drug dealer as he dangles off a high-rise balcony, skewered by a spike in the fence. As the rescue team blowtorch their way through the fence the sparks given off become fireworks, and the drug dealer sweeps his hand across the skyline and shouts, “I love this city!” If Taxi Driver is about a lost soul turned into an avenging angel by the degradation surrounding him, then Bringing Out the Dead is about surviving the soul-crushing misery, accepting rather than judging and in doing so finding a purpose, and even beauty. Viewed in this light it could be said that Bringing Out the Dead provides an optimistic counterpoint to Scorsese and Schrader’s early masterpiece, and becomes a worthy, if lesser companion-piece. So perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea to invite the comparison after all.

Bringing Out the Dead…. lives on.