Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Martin Scorsese
By the time the 20th century was winding down, it had been twenty-six years since Scorsese released Mean Streets. To finish out the century, the director re-teamed with his previous collaborator Paul Schrader to adapt a novel about a paramedic’s emotional & spiritual struggle on New York City streets. The result is not Scorsese’s best work, a strange aesthetic and characters that are very difficult to get a handle on. In an interview years later, Scorsese would admit that he was working out a lot of his own issues on the screen about his aging parents and his relationships with the people in the hospitals he was encountering. It’s clear something about this picture didn’t click as it was the only Scorsese film of the 1990s to receive zero Oscar nominations.
Set during the early 1990s, the movie follows Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a burnt-out paramedic who works in the middle of the night. He goes through several partners throughout the film, Larry (John Goodman), Marcus (Ving Rhames), and Tom (Tom Sizemore). Each partner has a very different interpretation of their work and only seems to agitate Frank towards wanting to leave this profession. Despite his attempts, he can’t get his supervisor to fire him, and so Frank just keeps going. One night, Frank responds to a call in the neighborhood he grew up in and tries to help a Mr. Burke be resuscitated. Frank seems to feel Burke telling him he wants to go, but upon the family’s insistence, they keep the man alive but in a coma. Frank becomes close with Burke’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette). Through Mary, he seems to find a beacon of light in a life that has become mired in death and guilt.
Without Scorsese’s name on this film, I don’t think anyone would ever guess he was the director. I applaud him for trying a different aesthetic, but it certainly feels dated. I can’t describe it exactly, but there was a movie-style in the late 1990s/early 2000s that was like an urban grit. I think this was originated or at least popularized by David Fincher. Seven and Fight Club, along with Nine Inch Nails music videos, brought this over-fried, grimy tone to pop culture. Scorsese seems to be leaning into that while trying to touch on themes from previous work like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and even After Hours.
There are many elements here that should work, but they fail to come together for one reason or another. Scorsese & Schraeder are a bit older than when they made Taxi Driver, so the edge has softened. Instead of such an intensely mentally disturbed protagonist like Travis Bickle, Frank is more aware of wearing him down. He doesn’t hate the city; he hates himself. In the opening narration, Frank explains how he’s failed to save a life for months now and that he doesn’t even feel like he’s doing the job he signed up for. Instead, he comes into people’s homes and performs an act to give them some comfort before pronouncing their loved one dead. On paper, this is a really compelling character and scenario, but where it falls apart is the lack of focus in the story.
I think Scorsese manages to recreate the feeling of insomnia and exhaustion people feel when they are up into the night’s late hours. The picture feels like a brain that has been overworked and lacking real rest & recuperation. Characters are written so broadly thought that they come to exist as metaphors rather than real people. I think back to Taxi Driver, and how it feels like a heightened reality, the line between the truth & fantasy is blurred by Travis’s warped psyche. The tightrope walk works in that film. Here the story falls apart into the second act and never really recovers.
We get some good scenes. I particularly liked the balcony scene where Frank has to help a man who is impaled on a balcony and on the verge of falling to his death hundreds of feet below. That is a well-shot and framed sequence that gives us two characters revealing things about each other. I think this is a film worth watching, but it certainly isn’t one I feel compelled to return to. I will say it made me interested in the original novel by Joe Connelly. Often bad film adaptations are made from stellar books. There was enough good here that I think I’ll add the book to my to-read pile.