Bringing Out the Dead

Monday, March 17, 2008

It’s not surprising that lots of people compare Bringing Out the Dead to Taxi Driver. Both are Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader collaborations, both deal with the seedy underbelly of night-time New York and both deal with strung out individuals driving, er, vehicles. But comparisons are unfair. One, because any film is going to have a hard time living up to Taxi Driver, and two, despite their surface similarities they’re very different movies.

Bringing Out the Dead centres around a paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). He can’t sleep and he hasn’t saved a person in months. And to make matters worse, he keeps on seeing the face of an eighteen-year-old girl who died in his arms. Needless to say, he isn’t in the best state of mind.

The start of the film is a little unconvincing. Yes Scorsese’s camerawork is electrifying – we see the ambulance speeding through the streets and Cage’s weary eyes are lit by the flashing lights – but the voiceover and its delivery feels clumsy. ‘The night started with a bang. A gunshot to the chest in a drug deal gone bad…’ It feels like something out of a B-movie or a bad novel. But then once the film settles down, it steadily improves.

The primary focus of the story is Frank’s relationship with the daughter of a cardiac arrest patient he brought back from the dead. In her he perhaps sees a chance to redeem himself – to make amends for the mistake he made with the homeless girl he couldn’t save. But although he wants to help her through this difficult time, he may have unwittingly made things worse. The man he saved was dead for too long, and so now he’s in limbo. As a consequence, the man’s alive but not completely aware (one of the doctors says he’s going to be a vegetable), and so therefore his new existence revolves around a routine of minor heart attacks and shocks to bring him back to life. This has a negative effect on his daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette), a reformed drug addict who falls off the wagon as she tries to hold her family together. And so all this misery has been inflicted because of Frank’s desire to save lives.

And in Frank you have a man who has been progressively worn down by his surroundings. We hear from him how great it is when you save lives, how the world seems to shine, but recently he’s been unable to do any good. And so while Travis Bickle’s problem was violent alienation, Frank’s is impotent empathy. He wants to make life better, but when there’s so much misery around him, he feels like he’s swimming against the tide.

It has to be said that Scorsese’s direction is often better than Cage’s acting at capturing this weariness. Cage’s performance certainly isn’t poor, but it is uneven. In one dire bit of acting, after having woken from a drug-fuelled dream, he just shouts incoherently like some B-movie monster. And the facial tics and jerky movements feel overly familiar. But then in other scenes he can be excellent.

But like I said, Scorsese’s directing is stronger than the star’s acting. Through time-lapse photography he captures the fractured passage of time and the frenzied emotions of the characters. And through his use of lighting he captures a frightening vision of urban hell while shining a bright halo on the film’s hero. After all, at one point, Frank likens saving someone’s life to having god pass through you. And in a wonderful hallucinatory dream sequence we see Frank reach into the ground to bring the dead souls of the people who have died before him back to life. This is the kind of power he wishes he had. He wishes he could rescue those lost souls – to drag them back from purgatory or hell and give them and him a second chance at living a normal life. Because this job makes Frank suffer – his burden is almost religious. And at one point he literally begs to be fired. But in a great comic scene, his Captain won’t have it. Because they’re understaffed, his Captain refuses to terminate Frank’s contract, even though that’s exactly what Frank wants. So even though he’s promised that he’ll be fired in the future, Frank knows he has to keep carrying this burden on his shoulders – he has to witness the sins of the world and do his best to patch up the mess.

But although there are plenty of serious religious undercurrents in the film, there are also some fantastic comic moments. In particular I like Ving Rhames’ Christian paramedic. He talks about Jesus, he flirts with the female dispatcher and he flashes money at whores. But in his best scene he presides over a ‘miracle’. A kid overdoses (a kid named I. B. Bangin’) and as Frank gives him a shot, Rhames gathers the rest of the junkies around and makes out like he and god have brought their friend back to life. The character has taken his role as a healer and almost wants to make it mythic in the eyes of these kids in order that they can reform their ways – it’s a great scene.

But in the film we see Frank work with three different paramedics (played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore respectively). Each one deals with his hellish situation in a different way. Goodman seeks solace in food, Rhames in god and Sizemore in violence. Frank is the only one who is tackling the awful situation head on and as a result he can barely take it. He even has to resort to booze and drugs to numb the pain.

And at the end Frank even takes the life of Arquette’s father. Every time he sees the man he hears him speaking in his head, asking to be put out of his misery. At that moment he’s borderline psychotic, but it’s still a mercy killing. He’s just tired of seeing people suffer – both the man and the man’s daughter. So in a way we’re kind of asked to see Frank as a modern saint, a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders so that others don’t have to suffer as much as he does. He’s the complete opposite of Travis Bickle, whose suffering was brought about by self-absorption.

And although the end of the film sounds a little pat, with Frank finding the love of a good woman and finally getting some much needed rest, it doesn’t feel contrived. This is what Frank needs – he needs someone who can understand his burden and he needs someone he can share it with. Only then can he rest and return to some semblance of normality.

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