Bringing Out the Dead

20gro9Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), the frazzled city paramedic at the center of Bringing Out the Dead, appears before us as a kind of bleary-eyed Charon — a ferryman transporting lost souls from one end of Hell (dirty streets, crackhouses) to another (a hectic hospital with no beds to spare). Frank’s job is complicated by the fact that this isn’t just New York City; it’s Martin Scorsese’s New York City, a hostile enchanted forest inhabited by wackos, killers, whores, addicts, and, every now and then, an actual normal person — as endangered a species here as the spotted owl.

Scorsese, renowned for his definitive New York portraits (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas), is solidly in his element. He rarely puts a foot wrong here, and he goes into Bringing Out the Dead with a restless eye and a playful spirit. Visually, this is unquestionably the work of the Master — a speed-demon action painting of paranoia, guilt, adrenaline — but is it a masterpiece? Sadly, painfully, I have to say no. Watching it, you feel like a cardiac-arrest patient, with Scorsese working on you with a defibrillator: jolt, lull, jolt, lull — he keeps pumping you full of electricity, and then he keeps losing you.

This may be due to Joe Connelly’s source novel (which I haven’t read), or it could be due to screenwriter Paul Schrader’s workmanlike adaptation. The reunion of Scorsese and Schrader on the insane streets of New York promised something on the level of their celebrated collaboration Taxi Driver. But that film emerged whole and bleeding from Schrader’s fractured psyche, whereas here we don’t feel much connection between Schrader and the material. He understands exhaustion, endless nights, obsessional guilt and shame, but he covered that in Taxi Driver and several other movies. Come to think of it, so has Scorsese.

Central to Frank’s torment is the ghost of a teenage girl, an asthmatic he failed to save, who has been haunting him ever since, in his dreams and now in waking life. She keeps turning up, and after a while she seems less like an embodiment of guilt than like a fancy literary device, a suggestion of the spiritual among the physical grime and rot of the city. We never quite understand why Frank is hung up on this particular girl; if he’d been emboldened by recent successes and let his cockiness lead to negligence that resulted in the girl’s death, we’d go along with it, but it’s hard to know why he’s plagued by this one failure and not others as well.

Another device that seems intended to work better than it does: a holy-fool addict (Marc Anthony), a dreadlocked, crazy-eyed patient who turns up at least as often as the guilt-inducing ghost. I suppose he’s meant to stand for the unsaved lost souls we’ve all turned our backs on. But he’s generally irritating to the point where you wish Frank would turn his back on him, too. I would rather have seen more of Cy, a seductively mellow drug dealer played with smooth precision by Cliff Curtis, and there are some amusing brief characterizations: a barking supervisor who refuses to fire Frank; a grim security guard posted outside the hospital entrance; a cynical doctor who keeps telling repeat patients things like “Why should we help you? You’re just gonna leave here and get drunk again”; sarcastic dispatchers voiced by Queen Latifah and Scorsese himself (in his usual rapid-fire mode, exhorting Frank to get going — it’s almost as if you’re hearing Scorsese telling his own movie to go faster).

Scorsese does his level best with the material; he cranks up the volume, sends his camera into warp speed, and composes a mood poem on the life of a paramedic. He pushes his actors to extremes, getting some wildly funny bursts of madness from Nicolas Cage, indulging guest loonies like food-obsessed Larry (John Goodman), impromptu preacher Marcus (Ving Rhames), and borderline psycho Major Tom (Tom Sizemore, easily and hilariously stealing his scenes), all of whom serve as Frank’s ambulance partners during a long weekend. But whenever Scorsese builds momentum, a scene comes up featuring Patricia Arquette as the morose daughter of a cardiac-arrest patient Frank has saved, and the movie slams on the brakes — we jerk forward and wait impatiently for the Arquette scenes to be over.

Perhaps Scorsese felt we needed the becalmed scenes of tentative romance between Frank and the daughter (Cage and Arquette may have fantastic chemistry in real life, but not on the screen) to give us a break from the relentless forward riffing in the ambulance sequences. After all, an entire movie as frenetic as Ray Liotta’s cocaine-cranked sequence near the end of GoodFellas would wear us down after about an hour. But really, I wish Scorsese and Schrader had had the courage to dump the romance aspect altogether and stick with Frank’s falling apart. However, without this subplot, we would lose the best scene in the movie: Frank’s final visit to Arquette’s ailing dad, a wordless scene that speaks eloquent volumes.

It’s been fascinating to follow Scorsese’s explorations over the past decade; he hasn’t been content to repeat his gangster successes too much, and even when an experiment doesn’t quite come off (The Age of Innocence, for instance, felt only slightly more alive than your average Merchant-Ivory museum piece), one still applauds the effort, enjoys the effortless technique. Scorsese, as he approaches his twilight years, has begun to get into pure cinema in a way that he perhaps couldn’t as an angry young man. Many Scorsese fans still haven’t seen his previous film, Kundun, and those who did probably didn’t care for it — too slow, too “boring” and uneventful. Yet I thought it was a triumph — a natural companion to The Last Temptation of Christ, a painterly trance of a movie whose images and pacing were perfectly true to the subject. It had no “story” to speak of, but neither do a lot of classics hailed as pure cinema.

Similarly, Bringing Out the Dead is really more about the marriage of image and sound than about the mundane and scattered plot mechanics that Frank encounters. This time, however, Scorsese is also married to a script that drags him down, keeps him from taking wing as a pure artist. Anyone could have directed the Cage/Arquette scenes; Scorsese just plugs them in there, dutifully. Perhaps he needed a story that roved a little more, like After Hours, which Bringing Out the Dead really resembles more than Taxi Driver. He needed less Patricia Arquette (her sister Rosanna sort of derailed After Hours, too) and more weirdos, more subterranean life, more dark corners to illuminate and explore.

Paradoxically, Bringing Out the Dead would seem more pedestrian if it weren’t directed by Scorsese, who at 56 shows no signs of diminishing energy; yet, because it is Scorsese, the pedestrian parts jump out and slap us. We expect more from him, and from Paul Schrader (whose adaptation of Affliction the previous year was a fine and painful piece). Should we judge this movie against Taxi Driver, or should we judge it against the usual Hollywood tripe? Either way seems unfair. So, judging it as an isolated work: terrific bit of directorial wizardry, but sometimes even Scorsese isn’t enough of an alchemist to make gold out of a lump of coal.

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