Bringing Out the Dead Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

I just needed a few slow nights, followed by a couple of days off.
Bringing Out the Dead logo

The life of a paramedic is not easy. After spending hundreds of hours in classroom, clinical, and hands-on settings, learning the emergency medical procedures they'll need to use on a daily basis (cardiac resuscitation, intubation, establishing IVs, etc.), paramedics are thrust into a hectic working environment where spending 12 to 24 hour shifts on the front lines is not uncommon, acting as the first point of contact for the injured. They see first-hand the frailty of the human form and the fragile strands by which a life can be sustained. They see the worst that human beings can do to each other, as well as to themselves. Without the benefit of the safety afforded by hospital walls or waiting rooms, they must go where their patients are, no matter what dangers await. And they do all this for an average annual salary of $30,000 US.

I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives, than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. Sometimes it was just enough that I showed up.
Nicolas Cage

With the high-stress work environment that they must endure on a daily basis, it is not surprising that a number of paramedics suffer from psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which is usually associated with survivors of natural disasters and combat veterans. In the past few years, a number of high-profile incidents illustrating the toll of stress on paramedics have come to light. In 1992, paramedic Trevor Thomas was first on the scene treating victims of the IRA bombing in London, for which he received a commendation. However, he was deeply traumatized by what he saw that day, and this eventually led to him shooting his girlfriend a year later. Earlier this year, Oregon resident David Cassel wounded a police officer before turning the gun on himself. Afterwards, it was learned that Cassel had been one of the paramedics on the scene following the 1984 mass shooting at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California, an incident that haunted him for almost fifteen years to the day.

Heat, humidity, moonlight... all the elements in place for a long weekend.

This is the condition in which we find Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage of "8mm"), the worse-for-wear and burnt-out Emergency Medical Technician in New York City, the protagonist of Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead". The story takes place during the graveyard shift between Thursday and Sunday on a hot summer holiday weekend sometime in the early 1990s. The timing is important because prior to 1996, New York's Emergency Medical Service was a chaotic and mismanaged organization, similar to what is seen in the film. It was not until when the EMS was integrated into the New York Fire Department that things improved.

How long have you been doing this?
Five years.
Wow... you must have seen some things, huh?

After spending five years as a paramedic, Frank is about to call it quits. For the past few months, all of his patients have died on him, and he is haunted by visions of the lives he couldn't save, particularly a teenage girl named Rose (Cynthia Roman). As he goes from call to call, he searches for some faint sign of redemption, a pure act of salvation that will wipe the slate clean of all his previous failures. But on the blood-soaked streets of New York City, a hellish concrete jungle inhabited by the dying and the neglected, Frank finds that redemption is a very hard commodity to come by. Even the hospital emergency room, the final destination, is not much better, where the overtaxed medical staff have little choice but to ignore the wall-to-wall wounded. Instead, Frank is driven to madness as he realizes that his futile efforts are miniscule compared to the unending deluge of drug overdoses, suicide attempts, beatings, shootings, stabbings, drunks, prostitutes, youth gangs, and the mentally ill that await him.

Now I want everyone here to grab the hand of the person right next to ya... come on now, we ain't go much time. And look up towards the heavens... dear Lord, here I am again, aksin' one mo' chance for a sinner, please Lord, please bring back I-Be-Bangin' Lord you have the power Jesus; you have the might; you have the super light; to spare this worthless man! Rise up I-Be-Bangin' and start your life anew, Lord!
Damn, you guys are good!
Tom Sizemore and Cage

On each night, Frank rides with one of his fellow paramedics, who each have their own way of dealing with the unending pressure. Larry (John Goodman of "Blues Brothers 2000") is emotionally aloof about his work, and cares only about finding a way to get off the frontlines. Marcus (Ving Rhames, last seen in "Entrapment"), on the other hand, treats the job as game, making grandiose revivalist ceremonies out of reviving drug overdoses to sweet-talking the central dispatcher. Finally, Tom (Tom Sizemore of "Saving Private Ryan") is a dangerous man who thrives on the carnage and carries some very disturbing thoughts on vigilante justice. Not surprisingly, Frank finds little solace in his co-workers.

Why's everything a cardiac arrest? Whatever happened to chest pain, difficulty breathing, fractured hands... come on people!

Meanwhile, a number of other individuals drift in and out of Frank's life during the course of the holiday weekend, the most prominent being Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette of "Lost Highway"), the daughter of a man who Frank saved from a heart attack on Thursday night. As Frank roams the streets of the city in search of fresh kill, his path crosses with Mary's on numerous occasions, and it is in Mary that he finds comfort.

You swore you'd fire me if I came in late again... you swore.
I'll fire you tomorrow! Even better than that... what was I thinking about... I can forward you some sick time... how about a week?
A week's not going to do it. A week's not going to do it.
Here... you're going out with Marcus, okay? Duty calls you kid... the city needs you... I'll front you some sick time. I'll make it up to you, honest to god... the next time I see you I'll fire you...

"Bringing Out the Dead" marks the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader (writer/director of "Affliction"), who teamed previously on "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull", and "The Last Temptation of Christ". Using Joe Connelly's novel as source material, the directing/writing duo have crafted a memorable motion picture that delves into the mad world of the paramedic. In many respects, "Bringing Out the Dead" has much in common with the very first Scorsese/Schrader collaboration, "Taxi Driver". The protagonists of both films, in addition to ferrying people through the streets of New York as part of their jobs, are disillusioned and driven to madness by the world around them and their own inability to save those they come into contact with. Likewise, in both films, a female character (Arquette in this film, and Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver") acts as a catalyst for redemption.

As you would expect from a Scorsese film, the technical achievements in "Bringing Out the Dead" are breathtaking, and are worth the price of admission alone. With the use of steadicams, unconventional lighting effects, speeded up film, and odd shot-framing, Scorsese, along with Director of Photography Robert Richardson ("Casino"), gives the New York night a hallucinatory and dreamlike quality, conveying the waking nightmare that Frank finds himself trapped in. Every shot in this film is a good one, making a bold visual statement about the grim realities and hidden beauty found in New York's back alleys. Some of the more brilliant sequences found in the film include Frank's disturbing visions, a star-spangled balcony-top rescue, and the kinetic exuberance of Frank's ambulance racing to the scene of the next 911 call.

Scorsese has also assembled a first-rate cast for this film. Cage is perfectly suited as the film's agonizing protagonist, a broken man haunted by personal demons that is just trying to get by. Arquette is equally effective as Mary, whose quiet manner and mood swings betrays personal demons of her own. Goodman, Rhames, and Sizemore play their memorably colorful characters with relish while Latin singer Marc Anthony does an entertaining turn as a drug addict that continually falls through the cracks of the system.

However, where "Bringing Out the Dead" stumbles is in its flat narrative, playing out more like a travelogue, lacking a substantial dramatic arc to propel the story forward. Though a number of interesting things happen along the way and we are taken to some interesting places, in the end, not much has happened to Frank. Admittedly, Frank does find his redemption at the end, but it seems that he has matured only by accepting the stagnant and futile nature of his existence. In essence, Frank is a man on the verge of defeat and he finds closure by accepting his fate. And though the lack of substance in the plot is appropriate in light of the film's nihilistic theme, the result is an ending that lacks emotional resonance or consequence.

"Bringing Out the Dead", despite having some problems in the storytelling department, is probably Scorsese's best work since "Goodfellas", helped by its claustrophobic atmosphere, stunning visual style, dark humor, and most of all, Cage's poignant performance. It is a joyless tale that Scorsese and Schrader tell, but it is presented in such a compelling manner that, like the aftermath of a car accident, you cannot help but look.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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