“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a paramedic.” If you’re expecting director Martin Scorsese to give the GoodFellas treatment to ambulance jockeys in Bringing Out the Dead, you’ll be disappointed. Instead of a my-world-and-welcome-to-it approach, Scorsese offers us a dizzying stream-of-consciousness meditation on death and dying via an EMS tech who calls himself a “grief mop.”
Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage: 8MM, City of Angels) himself looks like the ghosts that haunt him. Haggard and perpetually unshaven, his eyes red-rimmed, Frank sees the faces of patients he has lost when he looks out from his ambulance into the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the New York City neighborhood that is his beat. Hell’s Kitchen today is becoming gentrified, but back in the early 90s, when the film is set, the area was as hellish as its name implies. Frank works the overnight shift, and his city is a neon-lit netherworld of hookers, addicts, and drunk and crazy street people, and on all of them he sees the face of Rose (Cynthia Roman), a homeless girl he treated months earlier. The specter of Rose torments him: “Why did you let me die, Frank?” she asks over and over.
Bringing Out the Dead takes place over a sticky summer “weekend of full moons,” and while his sometime-partners Larry (John Goodman: Fallen, The Borrowers) and Tom (Tom Sizemore: Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State) are disaster junkies, reveling in the chance to respond to building fires and street-corner shootings, and getting a kick out of teasing (and worse) mentally ill patients, Frank just wants a few quiet nights with some nice, easy, non-
Frank finds a bit of respite with Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette: Stigmata, Nightwatch), whose father Frank brought back from the dead after a heart attack. Frank keeps running into Mary at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy — or Misery, as the paramedics call it — where she waits for news of her father’s condition — he’s being kept alive by machines, with little hope of recovery. Ironically, Mr. Burke (Cullen O. Johnson), who should have been Frank’s one victory of the weekend, is haunting the EMS tech, too, for reasons of his own.
Disturbingly funny in parts, Bringing Out the Dead — based on a novel by Joe Connelly and written for the screen by Paul Schrader (Affliction) — frequently blasts you back into your seat with giddy camerawork that illuminates Frank’s disturbed and distressed state of mind. Scorsese’s camera turns upside down to watch an ambulance streak down a rain-slicked street; we get in tight on Frank’s anxious face, red siren lights strobing in his eyes. The film is full of mesmerizing imagery — fish twitching on the floor, struggling for air after their tank has been demolished; Frank’s hospital, perpetually bathed in sickly green light — and unforgettable characters, like EMS Marcus (the always incredible Ving Rhames: Entrapment, Out of Sight), who turns emergency calls into revival meetings. Even EMS dispatchers whom we meet only over the radio (one voiced by Scorsese and another by Queen Latifah) leave a lasting impression.
A pensive film like this, though, stands or falls on its central character, and that Bringing Out the Dead succeeds so brilliantly is due to Nicolas Cage. Like Bruce Willis, Cage is all but unwatchable in action films (Con Air… *shudder*) but in gritty, streetwise dramas he’s unbeatable (he won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas). Frank’s New York is the real New York — claustrophobic, walk-up tenements; dirty streets; unpretty people — and Cage makes you feel the weight of this ugly world on Frank’s shoulders. By the final image of the film, you experience his exhaustion along with him.
Simultaneously frenetic and thoughtful, this is not a film to relax by. But Bringing Out the Dead will leave you wrung out in the best possible way.