Movie Review – Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
by NIR SHALEV
Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead, based on the Joe Connelly novel of the same name, takes place during the early 1990s and is a magnificent tribute to the decay of nighttime New York City. It focuses on the Hell’s Kitchen area and literally makes it look like one of the nine circles of hell.
Save for one scene in the film, we only see Hell’s Kitchen during the night. Its inhabitants: drug addicts/pushers, prostitutes, the handicapped, drunks, psychopaths, sociopaths, and weirdos. But then, this film records the subjective viewpoint of its protagonist, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a paramedic who’s lost enough patients on the streets so that now he only sees the worst in people. He constantly feels guilt that grows on a daily basis and also, has lost faith in humanity and sees only ghosts. Physically, the “ghosts” are those who roam the streets after the sun sets but to Frank, they are dead people walking the streets at night; the dead that he couldn’t save and can’t save.
The film chronicles the jobs of a crew of paramedics that work graveyard shifts in Hell’s Kitchen. Always in pairs. We first see Frank riding with Larry (John Goodman). They drive by various versions of street scum and early on we take note of Frank’s alcoholic tendencies. He always waits for a really late time in the night, closer to the dawn, in order to start some serious drinking; to make the job gloss over quickly and because he’d worked the beat for over five years, so even drunk he can perform miracles with his reflexes and steady hands.
The second night’s pairing is Frank and Marcus (Ving Rhames), a God-fearing man who’s in love with their unseen dispatcher (the voice of Queen Latifah), coincidentally named Love. They help a Goth at a night club to rise from the dead after overdosing on a dangerous drug, scaring the Goth’s friends by making it actually seem like a resurrection; they try to convince a destitute immigrant couple that the wife’s bellyaches are caused by her being pregnant; and finally, after “opening the bar” and getting drunk on gin while driving the ambulance, Marcus crashes it into a car and flips it over.
The third night’s pairing is Frank and Tom (Tom Sizemore), Tom being the craziest of the bunch. I won’t elaborate on the tremendously strange night that they have because it needs to be seen and heard. It’s hilarious, delirious, strange, melancholy, and as insightful as the previous nights.
What the movie focuses on most brilliantly is Frank’s obsession over a young girl named Rose, who he’d failed to save from a cardiac arrest a few years back. Her ghost haunts him continuously and she’s actually a ghost because no one but Frank can see her.
But Frank also meets a young woman named Mary (Patricia Arquette) who visits her father in the hospital that Frank’s unit is attached to. Mary’s father is comatose and even though she’d detested him throughout her life, she forgives her father for who he was and wishes the best for him because we all can find forgiveness at a moment of great weakness. Frank’s loneliness meets with Mary’s depressing life and together they become an unusual pair of ghosts themselves. They don’t resemble those that haunt them but also don’t belong out there with the rest of the “normal” population.
There are many more vignettes in the film that depict true filmmaking and screenwriting craftsmanship: a trippy dream sequence, a man impaled on a balcony’s fence after he’d tried to commit suicide, and a bum who’d lost his mind and ends up in Frank’s ambulance almost every night. They bring strangeness to the look and feel of the film but don’t hinder the art that this film is made with. They support the artsy feel and embrace it.
This is my personal favorite Martin Scorsese film and it boasts a terrific performance from Nicolas Cage, who performs with realism instead of being over-expressionist, terrific performances from the rest of the cast, and a terrific soundtrack that contains popular songs from the 1970s to the 1990s. There are a lot of different feelings that we go through from having even a single viewing of the film. This isn’t a plot-driven film, but a character-centered piece that contains a beginning, middle, and an end, and a raw infinite emotion that grows with every viewing.
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Nicolas Cage gave another terrific performance in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans.