Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
"We're all dying," says New York City paramedic Frank Pierce, played by Nicolas Cage, to Mary (Patricia Arquette), whose father is barely hanging on inside the ER after having a heart attack. That short sentence cuts right to the heart of Frank's dilemma in Bringing Out the Dead: when your entire life consists of failed attempts to save dying people, is there anything more worth thinking about?
Frank hasn't saved anybody in months; to his ambulance partners - who include the ambitious Larry (John Goodman), the deeply religious Marcus (Ving Rhames) and the overzealous Tom (Tom Sizemore) - it's not that big of deal. Hey, they're just doing the best they can. Frank is haunted by the ghost of Rosa, whose death may have been his fault, and he sees each person as an opportunity to make up for his past mistakes. He's the very definition of strung out: he gets little sleep, no nourishment except coffee and whiskey, and all he wants to do is get fired, which he thinks will cure his troubles.
In a loosely structured plot, Frank runs into an interesting cast of characters from the grungy underbelly of the big city. These include Noel, a crazy young man who always manages to end up in the ER and then run away from it; Cy, a drug dealer whose apartment is an "oasis" for junkies; Dr. Hazmat, the ER doctor frantically trying to balance the good and bad characters who come in; Griss, the hospital security guard who boots out anybody who doesn't want to follow his rules; and the aforementioned Rose, whose face appears on nearly every person at whom Frank looks. Throughout the story, Frank attempts to comfort Mary: he wants to help, but maybe he's also looking for help.
Director Martin Scorsese makes the lights of the city into a character in this movie, using them to highlight characters and draw us into their psyche. He also brings in a lot of subliminal religious imagery that would probably take repeat viewings to fully identify, which is to his credit. Screenwriter Paul Scrader has made a career out of unearthing seedy characters and showing that they too are humans, and Bringing Out the Dead is no exception to this rule.
I enjoyed this film a lot, though it doesn't rival Scorsese's best (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas) in creating riveting characters and story. Nicolas Cage turns in one of his better performances, the kind that he's capable of when he really puts his mind to it and remains understated rather than over-the-top. So overall, a thumbs up for Bringing Out the Dead, but not an overly enthusiastic one.
February 16, 2005