Bringing Out the Dead
- rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!
Tough love and fierce beauty
The film commences with Scorsese's trademark narration. Nicolas Cage,
playing ambulance driver and paramedic Frank Pierce (is it significant
that this was the name of the main character in MASH?). Cage, as Frank,
deadpans the narration as if it were film noir or and episode of TV's
Then Scorsese shows us how paramedics do their work. He goes over the
medical technique in detail, as he did for gambling in Casino. He even
has a speaking role as one of the two radio dispatchers (the other is
Queen Latifah, and the two of them carry on a strange and funny ritual
of flirtation and rejection). Bringing Out the Dead is deliberately
like Taxidriver in its look. It is as if Scorsese and writer Paul
Schrader decided that they wanted to make Taxidriver again for the new
millennium, but didn't want to do it again with taxis, so one of them
says: "I know. Not taxis. Ambulances!"
So we have Scorsese (and Schrader) revisiting old territory to a
degree, but the result is far from a rehash. This is something quite
different. Even the New York of its setting struck me as different -
it's the old New York of the early 1990s - not the new clean (some say
sanitised) version of the new millennium. And this is an intensely
spiritual film. It plays with notions of life and death, damnation and
salvation, hope and despair, and love and faith. So it's fertile ground
for Catholic Scorsese and Calvinist Schrader.
Because Frank is a paramedic, he has some hold over life and death. He
"plays God" in a manner of speaking. In one very funny scene he
promises to take a man with a manic death-wish to the "termination
room" of the hospital, where he can select his preferred method of
death. But it's not a role Frank is handling well. He says: "The God of
Hellfire is not a role anyone wants to play". Later he says "They
taught me to act without thinking... I came to realise that my work was
less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop"
But Frank is not having a good run of luck when it comes to saving
people. When he finally does manage to save someone, it is someone
"unworthy" - a drug dealer.
There's religious imagery galore here. One character is impaled on a
stake and just hangs there (like an accidental crucifixion). A black
woman in the Oasis is like a Mary Magdalene. Just the visual images of
the film would be enough reason to see it even if there were no plot.
During a drug scene Scorsese bathes the screen in red. It reminded me
of Roger Corman's film of Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Mask of the Red
There's also a lot of humour. Frank has three very strange paramedic
partners, all of whom try to cope with thre horror in the best way they
can. John Goodman copes by eating, Ving Rhames is a zealous Christian
who claims credit for "miracles," and Tom Sizemore is a violent loony.
There's a funny recurring gag about a junkie named Noel who wants to
die. It's mostly the blackest of black humour.
Frank is trying to hang on in the midst of the appalling suffering and
horror of the city: "This city - it'll kill you if you aren't strong
enough". He makes his living saving lives, but he is the one who needs
a saviour. He might have found it in Mary, the daughter of a patient he
is trying to save. Will they get together? Will it help them (she
herself is a recovering junkie). Frank tells her about his anxieties,
and that he's "waiting for his heart to stabilize".
The film is a basically just set of incidents and characters. But
Scorsese, the master, transcends that structure and gives us a
clear-eyed, tough-minded essay on despair, pain, hope and redemption.
Tough love and fierce beauty, you might say.