Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXVIII: Bringing Out the Dead

Bringing Out the Dead (1999) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Paul Schrader based on the novel by Joe Connelly.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Frank Pierce), Patricia Arquette (Mary Burke), John Goodman (Larry), Ving Rhames (Marcus), Tom Sizemore (Tom Wolls), Marc Anthony (Noel), Mary Beth Hurt (Nurse Constance), Cliff Curtis (Cy Coates), Nestor Serrano (Dr. Hazmat), Aida Turturro (Nurse Crupp).

Nicolas Cage has two of the best eyes I have ever seen on an actor. In Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, there are numerous close-ups on Cage eyes, and even when there’s not, he has a haunted look in them. He is a paramedic who cruises the streets of New York at night, seeing the worst the city has to offer on a daily basis, much like Travis Bickle, the “hero” of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But unlike Bickle, Cage’s Frank Pierce does not see human filth that he must purge the streets of, but victims and ghosts. People who need him to either save their lives, or at least bear witness to their deaths. He says at one point that he is a “grief mop”, and that’s a pretty good description.

The film follows Pierce over a three day period. Pierce has long since burnt out, and every day he hopes that by showing up late for work that his boss will fire him. When the Captain tells Pierce he has been told to fire him, Pierce assures him that it’s okay. But they need him. They are understaffed. Why doesn’t Pierce just not show up at all? He couldn’t do that.

The three nightshifts represent Pierce go through hell, each day getting a little worse than the one before it. His normal partner is Larry (John Goodman), who he works with on the first day. Larry is overweight, and has dreams of moving up the ladder, and distracts himself from the horror that he sees by concentrating on his next meal. Nothing seems to faze Larry. Everything affects Pierce. Their first call brings them to the Burkes, where the elderly patriarch has suffered a heart attack. He has been without air for nearly 10 minutes, but miraculously they bring him back around. But he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his short life. Pierce bonds with Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), his daughter. A lesser movie would have them fall in love, or at least into bed, but this movie doesn’t really do that. These two people are both too wounded to do that. But Pierce will return time and again to Mary over the three days, trying his best to help her through the tough time, although since he cannot get himself through, what good is he really?

During the second night, Pierce is teamed up with Marcus (Ving Rhames), a veteran who isn’t supposed to work too often. He tells Pierce he’s been where he’s at now, but then the Lord Jesus spoke to him, and now he’s okay. Some people live, some people die, and it’s all God’s will. There is a scene resembling the resurrection of Lazarus when Pierce and Marcus go to a nightclub, and find a kid who is ODing on heroin, and Marcus has his friends gather in a circle and pray to God, as Pierce gives the kid the drug that will pull him out of it. Later they will be called to an apartment of two “virgins”, although the girl is pregnant and giving birth – and breach birth at that – to twins. Each paramedic takes one of the babies – guess which one doesn’t make it?

The third day Pierce is teamed up with his old partner Tom (Tom Sizemore), who was just too crazy for Pierce to stay with. Tom takes the crazy people on the street, all the scum and vermin he sees around him, as a personal insult to him and his job. His latest mission is to try and get Noel (Marc Anthony), a man with some obvious mental problems, because he is a drain on society, and every night they have to pick him up and bring him to the hospital, just so he can run away before anything can be done to help him.

The film is full of Catholic imagery and symbolism, starting with the three day story arc which resembles the three days before Christ’s resurrection. The haunting final shot of the movie certainly brings this into sharp focus (do you think it’s a coincidence that he ends up in the arms of a woman named Mary with sunlight streaming in on him? I don’t.). There is also a smooth talking, calm drug dealer (Cliff Curtis), who offers Frank a stay at his oasis, and who through saving his life, Frank may in fact be saving his own. This is counterbalanced in a scene where Frank lets Mr. Burke die, and yet the two scenes show Pierce at his most merciful. Saving one man’s life, and ending another’s suffering. Wisely Scorsese, and writer Paul Schrader, downplay some of the more obvious symbolic choices made in Joe Connelly’s novel, on which the film is based, because it would have been too much on screen. Here, everything is obvious, but in a subtle way.

The filmmaking is electrifying. Scorsese shoots almost the entire film at night, and Robert Richardson’s brilliant cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s equally wonderful editing brings to mind Scorsese’s own After Hours. Another thing that connects the two movies is the sense of surrealism that permeates the two films. These films are not meant to be realistic, but rather to evoke the main characters state of mind during the bizarre proceedings.

All the performances in the film are great, but it is Nicolas Cage who anchors the movie. I mentioned his eyes before, and they are the key to the movie. Filled with a sadness throughout most of the movie, Cage’s eyes go crazy on that last night when he’s out with his crazy old partner again, before returning to a kind of calmness by the end of the movie. Sure, there are moments when Cage goes over the top in the movie, but they are all necessary. Sometimes events are so bizarre, you have to go that far over the top to deal with them. Cage knows what every scene in the film needs, and in one of his best performances ever, he provides that.

Out of all of Martin Scorsese’s films, I think Bringing Out the Dead is the most in need of a rediscovery. All of his other films, even the ones that were reviled or dismissed upon their initial release, have either gathered the group of supporters they deserve, or else remain dismissed for a reason. But Bringing Out the Dead, which was greeted with little enthusiasm either by critics or audiences, and in the decade since, the film hasn’t seemed to grow in reputation. I loved the film then, and watching it again, I loved it even more this time around. It is perhaps the most hopeful of Scorsese’s films in that Pierce doesn’t need to violently release his pent up feelings of hostility in order to cure himself, like Bickle, LaMotta or even Pupkin did in earlier films. Pierce is a man who is driven to the breaking point because he cannot help enough. He cannot save enough lives, and it’s starting to wear on him. He wants to save them all, but he’s at a point where he’ll settle for one. Anyone. By the end of the film, I think Pierce has found some semblance of peace. I hope for his sake, it lasts.

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