Working a 56-Hour ‘Dead’ Shift
Like many another Martin Scorsese protagonist, Frank Pierce is looking for salvation. The difference in the gritty, hallucinatory “Bringing Out the Dead” is that he’s doing it while simultaneously trying to save other people.
Based on a novel by Joe Connelly, who spent nearly a decade as an Emergency Medical Services paramedic on the surreal and (yes) mean streets of Manhattan, “Bringing Out the Dead” is at its best capturing the crazed cacophony of lives sustained by adrenaline and coffee, as feckless ambulance personnel fling themselves into the maw of the city at night in a whirl of sirens, anxiety and blinking lights.
This, as the film’s notes take pains to point out, is the pre-Mayor Rudy Giuliani early 1990s New York, when all the circles of hell seemed to be concentrated on one small island. As the hour grows later, each person encountered is crazier, more desperate, more dangerous than the last, and working the late shift into the wee hours is like living in a permanent dark night of the soul.
It’s not surprising that director Scorsese and frequent screenwriting collaborator Paul Schrader were drawn to this material: One early review of the book even claimed “it does for ambulances what the movie ‘Taxi Driver’ did for Yellow Cabs.” And, in everything from shots of emergency vehicles moving through clouds of steam to its fascination with violence and lives lived on the edge, “Bringing Out the Dead” provides a quarter-century-later bookend to that early effort.
Working with virtuoso cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for “JFK”) and longtime editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese turns this project into an impressive exercise in visual style that compensates, up to a point, for the film’s parallel deficiency, a kind of emotional coldness that may simply go with the territory. Though there’s no denying that this is beautiful filmmaking, “Bringing Out the Dead” is a film you admire more than warm up to.
Obviously jazzed by the rush inherent in the subject matter, Scorsese and company have produced an effortless variety of visual looks and inventive camera placements, all played against an eclectic soundtrack that finds room for 10,000 Maniacs, the Marvelettes and the Melodians.
Pierce (a spaced-out Nicolas Cage) has, after five years with EMS, simply been on the job too long. A walking Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown, he tells everyone who will listen that he can’t take the carnage anymore. But he’s got no sick time left and, in a Catch-22 situation, the more desperate he is to get fired the more his bosses adamantly refuse to dismiss him.
Frank also fails to get sympathy from the three partners he works with in the 56 consecutive hours--two days and three nights--we spend in his company. Larry (John Goodman) is just marking time, Marcus (a delightful Ving Rhames) has embraced Jesus, and Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore) lives only to inflict punishment. These options for dissociation have varying degrees of validity, but none of them work for Frank.
It’s no shock that Frank’s feeling more like “a grief mop” than a valued member of society: Given the hellacious living nightmare world he works in, it’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner. Night after night, the dispatchers (the unseen voices of director Scorsese and Queen Latifah) relay the bizarre, dispiriting news: Woman reports roach in her ear, man sets his pants on fire, elderly woman abducted by her cat. And that’s on a slow night.
Frank’s motto used to be “Help others and you help yourself,” but lately that’s not been working for him. It’s partially because he hasn’t saved anyone’s life in months, and saving lives is the grail of paramedic work, “like falling in love, the greatest day in the world.” Instead he’s burdened by dealing with the likes of Mr. Oh, the malodorous homeless man who is the EMS’ most frequent flier.
But more than that, Frank, who grew up in the same Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood he now drives in, is haunted by the ghosts of the people who died on his watch. He’s especially shadowed by the spirit of Rose, an 18-year-old asthmatic whose death he feels particularly responsible for and whose presence he sees everywhere.
Maybe that’s why Frank is attracted to Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette, Cage’s real-life wife), the estranged daughter of a heart attack victim he transports to the overflowing Our Lady of Mercy (a.k.a. Our Lady of Misery) emergency room, a chaotic snake pit where unflappable Nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt) tells drug users desperate to be helped, “I can’t see why we should. If I’m mistaken here, correct me, OK? Did we sell you the cocaine? Did we push that cocaine up your nose?”
As Frank fitfully attempts to connect with Mary, she worries about not only her father but also Noel (singer Marc Anthony), a kid from the neighborhood who’s turned into a deranged street person. Meanwhile, the specter of Red Death, a new and potent kind of crack, haunts the neighborhood both Frank and Mary still call home.
Despite the virtuosity with which it’s made and the way it’s enlivened by periodic use of black humor, “Bringing Out the Dead” has the same kind of difficulty connecting with the audience that Frank has with Mary. Though the argument could be made that poignancy or even warmth is not on its agenda, without something for us to hang onto, this film dances on the edge of flat-lining just like the DOAs that are Frank’s stock-in-trade.
* MPAA rating: R, for gritty, violent content, drug use and language. Times guidelines: numerous scenes of violence plus the unmediated chaos of an emergency room from hell.
‘Bringing Out the Dead’
Nicolas Cage: Frank Pierce
Patricia Arquette: Mary Burke
John Goodman: Larry
Ving Rhames: Marcus
Tom Sizemore: Tom Walls
Marc Anthony: Noel
Paramount Pictures and Touchstone Pictures present a Scott Rudin-Cappa/De Fina production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Martin Scorsese. Producers Scott Rudin, Barbara De Fina. Executive producers Adam Schroeder, Bruce S. Pustin. Screenplay Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Joe Connelly. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Dante Ferretti. Art director Robert Guerra. Set decorators William F. Reynolds. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.