Bringing Out the Dead

Oct 27, 1999 at 12:00 am

Cruising the New York City night, ambulance driver Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is in a perpetual state of expectation and dread. Part of it is the nature of his job – stretches of time-killing driving suddenly punctuated by urgent, life-altering calls to action – which is made even more chaotic and uncertain by the disorganization of the EMS system in the early 1990s, when this story takes place.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese quickly establish the external factors that would put even the most balanced, well-adjusted person on edge. But while Bringing Out the Dead is based on a 1998 novel by former NYC paramedic Joe Connelly, it isn’t meant as an exposé of the profession. It’s about the private purgatory that Frank has cooked up for himself in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen from equal parts insomnia, guilt and inertia.

The film is a surreal evocation of his anxious state of mind. In a style that vacillates wildly from manic movement to Zenlike calm, Scorsese re-envisions Frank’s environment through his weary, haunted eyes.

During three nights, Frank is teamed with three radically different co-workers (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore) who affect not just his mood but what happens during their shifts. But he also repeatedly encounters Mary (Patricia Arquette), the tough yet fragile daughter of a heart attack victim he brought reluctantly back to life, and Noel (Marc Anthony), a demanding homeless man suffering from a mysterious ailment and wild mood swings, who force the wraithlike Frank to redefine his humanity.

In its tone, Bringing Out the Dead is a cross between the Schrader-Scorsese nocturnal nightmare, Taxi Driver, and Schrader’s own meditative Light Sleeper. But in its execution, it’s a wild journey of excess, with Scorsese pulling out all the visual stops while blending gallows humor with Frank’s tortured search for redemption.

Martin Scorsese is a fascinating paradox: a maverick elder statesman of American cinema whose encyclopedic knowledge of his medium only encourages him to push it farther. In Bringing Out the Dead, he repeatedly evokes Van Morrison’s soul-wrenching lament to a dying lover, "T.B. Sheets." Morrison’s aching confession plays like a haunting refrain, underscoring Scorsese’s assertion that the face of death can still manage to possess a transcendent beauty.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].