Film Review: Bringing Out the Dead (1999)


Martin Scorsese is considered one of the greatest living film makers today. Such lofty reputation was built on great number of films that were justifiably seen as classics and masterpieces. However, even filmography of such artist can’t be without failures, some of them being quite surprising, like in the case of 1999 drama Bringing Out the Dead.

The film is based on the best-selling novel by Joe Connelly, inspired by author’s experiences as paramedic in New York City. The plot is set in early 1990s, in a time before they mayorship of Rudy Giualiani, when the city suffered because of vicious cycle of drugs, poverty and rampant crime. Many of victims, usually those at the lowest strata of the society, are handled by protagonist Frank Pierce (played by Nicolas Cage), paramedic who is currently experiences great difficulties in doing his job. Emotionally exhausted and frustrated with the fact that in past few months he haven’t succeeded in saving a single life, he becomes haunted with visions of Rose (played by Cynthia Roman), homeless teen who died on his watch. He intends to quit the job, but his superior Captain Barney (played by Arthur Nascarella) lacks personnel and talks Frank into remaining for next 48 hours, when full moon is likely to bring extra work. In next three nights Frank rides with three partners – gluttonous Larry (played by John Goodman); Christian fundamentalist Marcus (played by Ving Rhames) who likes to recite Gospels to patients; sadistic Tom Wells (played by Tom Sizemore) who likes to beat people. In the meantime, Frank befriends Mary Burke (played by Patricia Arquette), ex drug addict and daughter of elderly man he managed to bring to hospital.

Failure of Bringing Out the Dead at the box office, due to its dark and depressive subject, wasn’t exactly surprising. Lack of enthusiasm among critics, on the other hand, was. Much of the disappointment was due to the project reuniting Scorsese with screenwriter Paul Schrader, with whom he had worked on some of his most legendary films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Most of the critics were likely to compare Bringing Out the Dead with the latter, mostly because the setting and themes were very similar, including the protagonist who has to drive all night on mean streets of New York and sees people at their worst. Such comparisons were, however, doomed to result in huge disappointment because it was unlikely that would Scorsese manage to repeat his success from nearly quarter of century earlier.

Main reason can be found in Schrader’s script lacking the depth and social context of the plot. Unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, protagonist of this film doesn’t want to become part of something bigger than himself ; he feels alienated and his alienation ultimately affects the audience that can’t properly identify with his plight. Loose narrative structure, based on vignette-like episodes, doesn’t help either and Scorsese indulging in occasional experimenting with style, like in the scenes featuring Frank’s visions, looks more like unnecessary showing off than credible artistic decision. Nicolas Cage, an actor with prolific filmography and reputation for giving it all at screen, here seems strangely disinterested for the role. That might be partially explained with off-screen complications like the troubles in his marriage with Patricia Arquette who also appears in the film. General impression is, to a degree, saved by trio of capable character actors who play protagonist’s unusual partners, as well as Marc Anthony in the role of Rastafarian street bum and Cliff Curtis as strangely sympathetic drug dealer. There are some pieces in this film that are quite good but Scorsese failed to put them together in coherent whole. However, Scorsese’s talent is such that even such failure represents a film much better than film most of his less talented peers would consider triumphs.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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