Bringing Out the Dead (1999) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analyzed: In 1999, Martin Scorsese made “Bringing out the Dead”, a psychological drama adapted (by Paul Schrader) from Joe Connelly’s book of the same name.

It was a box office failure back then but it surely wasn’t a bad film. In hindsight, it was actually a very interesting psychological drama that explored the psyche of this burnout paramedic (a great, eccentric Nicolas Cage) over the course of three nights.

Skillfully directed by Scorsese and deftly edited by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker; the movie deals with themes like occupational burnout, trauma bonding, internal suffering from guilt, drug use, and the effect of it on all sections of society altogether. In a way, it can actually be described as an antithesis of Marty’s own Taxi Driver, inarguably one of the most popular films of all time (more on this later).

Bringing out the Dead Movie Summary & Plot Synopsis:

On a random Thursday night in the neon-lit Manhattan, New York we are introduced to Frank Pierce, an overworked paramedic who is severely depressed as he hasn’t been able to “save” a person for a while. Through his “Travis Bickle”-esque narration (which Cage does with effortless Bravado) we get a peak at what is going on inside his head.

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At the start of the film, Frank and his partner Larry (an ever-dependable John Goodman) respond to a call from the Burke family where Mr. Burke suffers from a cardiac arrest and they take him to the hospital. Frank befriends Mr. Burke’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) and later finds out Mary is friends with Noel (Marc Anthony), a drug addict and delinquent who is a regular at the hospital.

Later that night, Noel creates a ruckus in the street and Frank rescues him from another paramedic Tom (Tom Sizemore) who is hot-headed and considers Noel a nuisance. Tom even says that he has the intention to beat him to death as it would, according to him, not matter in any way. However, they are cut short by a “double shooting” distress call where Frank rescues the victim and brings him back to the hospital along with Noel, only to untimely see the victim die.

The next night, Frank is paired with another paramedic named Marcus (Ving Rhames) who is a very religious man. They attend a victim who has suffered from a cardiac arrest in a club. Frank eventually realizes the cause of it is actually drug overdose, the same “Red Death” heroine which was connected with the previous night’s shooting incident as well. Frank saves the man by injecting Narcan while Marcus starts a prayer in front of the club-goers and the man regains his consciousness just when Marcus finishes.

While going back to the hospital, Frank visits Mary at her apartment and tells her that her father’s condition is improving. Later that night, Frank and Marcus rescue a pregnant woman who gives birth to twins. Marcus takes the mother and healthier twin to the maternity ward while Frank and the hospital tries to save the other twin who eventually dies. Frank gets frustrated and further hopeless and starts to drink, but then he is joined by Marcus and they crash the ambulance into a parked car.

Frank sees Mary in the hospital and they end up at a drug den where Frank meets a drug dealer named Cy (who is presumably behind the Red Death drug). In a moment of desperation, he takes a pill and goes on a psychedelic, hallucinating trip involving the people he failed to save. After getting sober, he carries Mary out of the building. At the hospital, Frank starts to hear Mr. Burke’s voice inside his head asking Frank to let him die but Frank saves him instead.

Bringing Out the Dead
Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette in a scene from the film ‘Bringing Out the Dead’, 1999. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

On the third night, Frank gets paired with Tom and he is at his peak of frustration. But after responding to a shooting in Cy’s drug den, Frank manages to save Cy who becomes the first person he saves after months. Afterward, he agrees to help Tom beat up Noel but eventually decides to save Noel from Tom.

But then comes perhaps the most shocking moment in the film. Frank visits Mr.Burke in the hospital and he again hears Burke’s voice inside his head pleading for Frank’s help. This time, Frank removes Burke’s breathing tube which results in Burke going into cardiac arrest and then dying instantly.

The biggest question that arises here is why would Frank kill Mr.Burke right after saving two people.

Before getting into that, let us look into some other aspects which will eventually help us to realize the reasons behind Frank’s final action.

Who is Rose and what is her significance?

Throughout the film, Frank keeps seeing this woman named Rose, who is clearly a result of Frank’s hallucination. It is eventually revealed that Rose is one of the people Frank failed to save. In the context of the story, Rose is a projection of Frank’s guilt regarding not being able to save people. As he continuously fails to save people the guilt only manifests further and he keeps seeing Rose more frequently.

Why did Frank and Mary get drawn to each other?

Even though Frank is seen mostly working, he manages to find some genuinely real moments with Mary and they manage to form a bonding which eventually leads to mutual liking. We, as an audience, do not get to know Frank’s private life until he has a conversation with Mary about being married before and his wife leaving him. Mary, on the other hand, has a recurring drug problem as well as a strained relationship with her father. This is a case of trauma bonding where two disturbed, grief-stricken people find solace in each other.

Frank and Mary both find a safe place in their bonding. Among all the characters Frank interacts with, he is the nicest but also his most real self with Mary. Patricia Arquette has very few scenes but thanks to good writing and her performance the entire arc of Frank and Mary becomes the soul of this film.

What do Frank’s partners represent in the context of the story?

All the three working partners of Frank in this film represent something that Frank does not have or has not become. Larry talks about his family and his son, which represents stability and family life which Frank does not have (as it is later revealed that he is not married to his wife anymore).

Marcus represents faith and devotion to a higher power which Frank does not have or maybe he has lost.

Tom, on the other hand, is a metaphor for where Frank is going, which is insanity and eventual damnation. Tom is there already as he does not hesitate to beat up Noel and do even worse. But Frank, no matter how troubled he is, still has a heart.

Why was saving Noel and Cy essential for Frank?

In an early scene of the film, Noel sees Mary in the hospital, and after getting to know her father is sick the first thing he does is comfort her. This implies Noel, no matter what trouble he creates is still a human being and every human life has values. By saving Noel from someone like Tom, Frank is actually saving his own soul.

Cy, on the other hand, has walked down to the dark side and he is actually responsible for the drug problems in the film. But by saving him, Frank basically offers him a chance at redemption which is a noble human act for which Cy eventually shows his gratitude to Frank.

Bringing out the Dead Movie Ending explained: Why did Frank kill Mr. Burke?

The ending of Bringing Out the Dead finds Frank helping Mr. Burke die; which leaves the audience in a sinner versus savior argument regarding this character. But, if this matter is given proper thought and every action of Frank is considered, then it actually makes a lot of sense and Frank definitely does not come as the sinner.

By removing Mr. Burke’s breathing tube Frank actually shows mercy to an already dying man who was suffering. Even though Mr. Burke’s condition improved, he was still far away from proper recovery. It is debatable whether Frank could actually communicate with him nonverbally or not, but Frank’s action was rather sympathetic and makes him the savior of Mr. Burke in a way.

In Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver (1976), we see another troubled man walking down the path of darkness and ultimately succumbing to the damnation of his soul, while here, an equally troubled man manages to find salvation instead; thus making this film a sort of antithesis of Taxi Driver.

In the very last scene of the film, Frank delivers the news of Mr. Burke’s death to Mary, then goes inside her apartment where they share a quiet, wordless moment of togetherness and acceptance. That scene is a symbol of both these characters finding peace after a lot of struggle, and this is where the film manages to triumph further.

Also, Read – Resurrection (2022) Movie Explained: Ending & Themes Analyzed


Bringing Out the Dead (1990) Movie Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Bringing Out the Dead (1990) Movie Cast – Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Marc Anthony
Where to watch Bringing Out the Dead

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