"I'd always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn't wait for me to sleep.” – Frank Pierce
Martin Scorsese is well known for films such as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Gangs of New York, etc. The list could go on and on. Unfortunately, when most people list off their favorite Marty flicks, there is one that is almost always missing: the 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Even though this film shares themes that audiences seem to enjoy under different titles, for whatever reason Dead gets left out in the cold. I’m here to turn you on to what is surely one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will have.
To begin with, this is the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the first three being Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Excluding some controversy with Christ, these are routinely accepted as masterpieces. So, why the disconnect this time around? This writer thinks it is almost entirely a problem of preconceived notions. Even before the foolish critics of the time (excluding an excellent write up from Roger Ebert) labeled it as Scorsese-lite, people were turned off by the film. For unknown reasons, the all-star cast, including Nic Cage, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Patricia Arquette and Marc Anthony, didn’t fire up people’s curiosity. A good chunk of this trouble could be blamed on the film Marty directed prior to Dead – the unfairly maligned 1997 epic Kundun. Especially since Casino had come two years before that, people were in a gangster mood when the screen said Scorsese. Between the relative dislike of Kundun, the fact that not many people saw or cared to see his excellent documentary that served as a journey through Italian cinema (My Voyage To Italy), and the fact that this wasn’t a gangster film, Bringing Out the Dead was near destined to be a failure.
Although Cage had offered up some great performances prior (Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas), this marks the first time that someone could actually control him. Cage's normal performances range from vapid, blank stares to earth-shaking bursts of crazy. Bringing Out the Dead gives us his first performance that wobbles unsteadily in the middle. Without it, the film would've failed. The free flowing, unpredictable acting on display gives the film its shaky center, setting the stage for this brutal tale of suffering and the tension created from the line-riding is palpable. If a single line, either narrated or spoken, doesn’t hit home, the entire film falls apart. Scorsese wisely gives Cage a lot to do. We meet a wide array of people that all bring out some corner of Frank’s psyche that had yet to be exposed. John Goodman is Frank’s first riding partner in the ambulance. As always, Goodman brings an enormous energy and gets the film moving. We then get Ving Rhames at his best, as an energetic EMT who uses every opportunity to praise Jesus and deliver the Word. Last we get Tom Sizemore playing a man that can only get by taking his aggression out on whatever's around. Whether it's a crazed homeless man named Noel (a surprisingly solid turn from Marc Anthony), or the ambulance that acts as chariot to the hell that every night brings, Sizemore's character is on the verge of catastrophe at every turn. Along with Frank Pierce, the character Mary Burke (a slightly unenthused but solid Patricia Arquette), gives the story something to come back to after each vignette. Scorsese has been obsessed with faith, specifically Catholicism, since his first film. This time, he decides to be very overt in naming the character that Frank is drawn to for guidance, help and appreciation, Mary. I shall now stop with any other plot details, because the rock n’ roll fueled energy that comes from seeing this film unfold would be foiled if more is revealed.
Moral of the story: why wouldn’t you want to watch a dizzying descent into one man’s personal hell, full of wonderful performances, a soundtrack that includes Van Morrison, The Clash, The Who and The Melodians, gorgeous, disorienting cinematography by Robert Richardson (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Casino), earnest balls-out direction from Scorsese and a brooding, psychologically probing screenplay from Paul Schrader? And of course we can’t forget – it’s a really great dark comedy. If I haven’t convinced you, here is a single quote from a better-spoken man than I that should do the trick.
“Once again, this carnival of lost souls gives him the stylistic equivalent of an adrenaline boost; intellectually, Scorsese may not pine for the early nineties, but they're custom-fit for his perpetual theme of redemption through suffering, and the vistas -- the steam heat rising like hellfire from the streets, the phalanx of hookers and dopers, the whole vast detritus of the human comedy -- leave him rapt. Scorsese used to make movies about this world when it was right on top of him; in Bringing Out the Dead, he's serving up what amounts to livid pictographs from the cave of an earlier era. Not too much earlier, though. His point may be that there's still a lot of Then in Now.” – Peter Rainer
- Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center