Most directors consider themselves lucky if they give us one classic in their entire careers. Scorsese, on the other hand, has given us one every decade- “Taxi Driver” in the 70s, “Raging Bull” for the 80s, “Goodfellas” for the 90s and “The Departed” for the 2000s. Since his filmography reads like a barrage of universally acclaimed classics it is not surprising to find a little gem that generally gets overlooked.
“Bringing Out the Dead” came out in 1999 and marked the fourth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader(“Raging Bull “,”Taxi Driver “,”The Last Temptation of the Christ”). The film can be seen as somewhat of a companion piece to “Taxi Driver”. The themes Scorsese chooses to pursue in both these films compare and contrast nicely- Travis Bickle is a lonely man who violently lashes out against the decadence he perceives in the society, whereas our protagonist Frank Peirce here has already given up. Working as a paramedic in New York city the film chronicles three nights in Frank’s life.
From the very first scene, it is clear that Scorsese is not holding back anything. He is at the top of the game and flexing every cinematic muscle he has. He presents to us a nightmarish and dreamlike New York, one where there is a junkie in every alleyway and steam rises from the manholes. It seems like a cliché to say this but the city is in itself a central character in this movie, so much so that it wouldn’t have worked had they changed the location to somewhere other than New York.
Bringing Out The Dead features top notch cinematography and editing that creates an environment of general unease that never lets up throughout the runtime of the film. Scorsese wisely uses a variety of camera angles and never holds onto a shot long enough for the audience to grow comfortable with it. He quickly and deftly directs our attention from one place to the next and always keeps us in a state of hyperactivity, reflecting the emotions of a night shift paramedic trying his best to save lives. Characters reveal themselves not through conversations about their feelings and their past but through their present actions and subtle emotional cues from the actors.
Nicholas Cage, while widely parodied for his wild and theatrical performances, is highly restrained. From the first sentence that he utters you get the sense he is burned out on his job and his life and wants nothing more than to quit and call it a night. Patricia Arquette, playing the daughter of one of the people Frank saves on his job, strikes up a relationship with Frank and the viewer quickly comes to realize that this isn’t some Hollywood romance but rather two very broken people looking for comfort from one another. Rounding up the supporting cast we get John Goodman, Vhing Rames and Tom Sizemore as often unhinged partners. Rames is particularly entertaining in his turn as the Jesus-loving happy-go-lucky paramedic who gets drunk on the job.
In the end, it is clear that Bringing Out The Dead isn’t one of Scorsese’s most accessible feature films although he pulls no punches and still delivers a strange, often trippy, and harrowing look at Frank Peirce’s state of mind that’s as bewildering as it is entertaining and insightful.