Directed by Martin Scorsese
Line that stays with me: “Saving someone's life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world.”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
Being perceived as a great director must make it very difficult to make films. Knowing that each film you create will be compared to your masterpiece or most recognized film must add all sorts of complications to your creative process. Martin Scorsese is one of those directors. Justified but still rather unfair, I mean he’s being hailed as the director with the best movies in 3 decades. 70’s “Taxi driver”, 80’s “Raging Bull” and right at the beginning of the 90’s “Goodfellas”. He could have retired after making anyone of those films and he would have still become a legend in cinema history. Martin Scorsese is cinema, the fire, the passion, and films that excite you not just for the great storytelling but the images that strike our hearts and minds like very few directors have the ability to do. Martin Scorsese is a director that continues to excite us in the most honest direct way, visually. The way his shots become moments so powerful that you remember them but you do not talk about them, you admire and you know it meant something. That kind of cinema is very rare, it is like magic. “Bringing out the Dead” is classic Scorsese. NYC, the streets, and a story that takes place in a horrific, dangerous atmosphere in jobs and places most human beings have forgotten to save sympathy for. I think he wants to take us there for good reasons. Paramedics have one of the many jobs in America we take for granted of course that is until you’re on the floor screaming for HELP. If anything this film humbles you. Who would want to go to work every day in a job where there is a strong possibility you will witness someone die in a terrible sudden fashion? It is a job that must be done and a very important one yet we treat these people like nobodies. Reality show stars that eat up precious time you will never get back get more respect but there is very little chance that a reality show star will ever be there for you in a case of emergency. So knowing that I live in this crazy, upside-down, it is what it is world (For now) I thank God there are directors like Martin Scorsese. I’m thankful for those directors who want to open your mind, your heart and take you places that help us better understand us as a whole. They help us see the weird, strange, beautiful, sad and dangerous human beings we can be or become.
There is much to admire in a film like “Bringing out the dead”. Even after watching it seven times, I feel like I still have some unanswered questions that I will probably better understand later in life. For now I love its sense of life, human comedy, and mystery. I know some people view this film as “Taxi Driver 2” and I understand why but I think it is uncalled for. “Taxi Driver” deals with desperation, “Bringing out the dead” deals with salvation. It is not the classic story of a loner gone mad, but a man who is alone because of a job that has taken its toll on his soul. Unlike Travis Bickle, Frank Pierce can speak to women without creeping them out, he was even married once. Now after a long string of bad luck and sleepless nights haunted by the thoughts of young girl that he could not save, he meets Mary Burke. That’s where we come in and we get to watch this strange relationship develop around death and misery. The performances in this film alone are worth at least one viewing. John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore all have classic sometimes hilarious moments in this film. Nicholas Cage and Patricia Arquette are very fascinating to watch together. They deliver the performances needed to make this film truly special. Nicholas Cage’s moments of wild lunacy are great here; he also delivers great quiet moments like in the scene where Frank and Mary discuss their past. Patricia Arquette delivers her lines with such perfect tone and has simple moments that are performed with great emotion. Visually the film grabs you from the opening sirens to the perfect soundtrack blasting sometimes at higher than normal levels throughout the film. There’s a lot take in “Bringing out the Dead”, but on a basic film fundamental level this film is very well made. It is done so well that at times it is a struggle to watch this bleak reality and probably why it didn’t do so well at the box-office. This film did not hold back, it is raw with brief trips to the unknown and moments unwanted.
The film begins with a moment that changes many people’s lives forever, the death of their father. That scene leads to one of the film’s greatest mysteries. The mystery reaches a climax in that dreadful scene where it seems that Frank could hear the spirit of Mary Burke’s father begging him to pull the plug. There is no way of truly knowing if he really heard his spirit or not but we are confronted with an honest blunt question. What is the right thing to do in such a situation? When the hope for a miracle and the idea that death will at the very least bring resolution, conflict with each other in your mind, promising no easy answers. The film mainly shows people’s reaction to death. How Americans deal with death. Frank Pierce has a grand connection to death as saving lives is what makes him feel alive in some way. It is very important to remember that Frank loves his job. He could’ve picked another profession if he desires to be tortured for money but saving lives makes him feel like he’s on top of the world. That’s how this strange world works. Frank Pierce is very much like an addict and near the end of the film and after still not saving someone’s life he looks like a full fledge junkie who’s going through withdrawal. His partners deal with death in completely different ways, which I think truly says a lot about us as a nation. John Goodman’s character is very corporate about death. I love that hilarious scene where Nicholas Cage asks him, “You ever thought about doing something else” and John Goodman goes on a whole spiel on how one day it’s going to be “Captain Larry” calling the shots, totally ignoring he’s poor friend desperate conversation. Ving Rhames is brilliant as Marcus, seems like one of the few times Ving Rhames got to let loose a bit and have fun. Marcus is a religious man, which is a business created due to the fear of death and how many people find solace when a death occurs. One of my favorite moments is Ving Rhames screaming “You need the Holy Ghost Frank! The Holy Ghost! The irony and the beauty of that moment is why I love cinema. Here’s Frank struggling with a ghost that haunts him and Ving Rhames’ solution is to go find another ghost. For all we know Marcus could be right but in that moment it sounds terrifically absurd. Tom Sizemore is incredible and also very hilarious at times as Tom, especially in that conversation with Frank about how much respect he has for his ambulance because he has tried to destroy it but it will not die. Tom Sizemore’s character is another classic American reaction to death. There are people who have developed a tough skin and revel in such matters or get excited by the carnage on a visceral level. We all have known people like that, the kind of people that can watch a very bloody surgery while eating a ham sandwich. Well, America is a tough place, New York City especially so it is not surprising that someone will develop in such a way. But like Tom Sizemore in this film those people can be INTENSE. The breakdown of Frank’s partners in crime in terms on how they deal with death is quite stunning and does speak loudly about Americans as a whole. Larry is the corporate man, whose desire for a better life allows him to do his job without letting the day to day misery of the world ruin his parade. Marcus believes in God and that when it’s your time, it’s your time. Thus he doesn’t truly feel responsible for someone’s death, it was just their time and that lets him sleep at night. Tom’s character is the man in it for the action; he enjoys the environment, the intensity, jokes about people who are near their death so he must have another layer of understanding. Tom’s attitude towards life will not allow him to get emotionally involved it is just another bloody Sunday for him. Nicholas Cage’s character is the only one that truly lets it in. He cares about people he probably only knew for ten minutes. That makes his character very beautiful but ultimately tragic, he does not seem to understand or believe that there are more powerful forces at work in this life. Some things are out of our control, simple as that. The final scene in the film explains this when Patricia Arquette, with a perfect tone and soft voice plainly tells Frank “It’s not your fault, no one asked you to suffer, that was your idea”.
Many times one of the best things about watching a Martin Scorsese picture is his soundtrack selections and how he creates amazing sequences with what seems to be the most appropriate track. One great example is how he used Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the fire” in “Goodfellas”. Till this day that is my favorite sequence in any film, I am not calling it the best, but it is my personal favorite. From the opening scene Martin Scorsese uses popular music in a very exciting, thought out way by using the harmonica off Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets” to match the ambulance swerving into frame sirens blaring filling the screen with an atmosphere of vermilion. You get a crazy crane shot with R.E.M.’s “What the frequency Kenneth” as we arrive on a drug deal gone wrong in the ghetto. Perfect song for its relevance to America’s past and the human disconnection brought upon modern society. You get two great Clash songs, one being “Janis Jones” edited to a wild moment that offers us the brief bliss of madness. Throughout the film you get to watch stunning moments scored with great songs and when you dig up the history of these songs you will find a whole other layer to the film that Martin Scorsese has prepared for you to enjoy and reflect on.
The film is a journey through hell. Something Martin Scorsese is famous for in a way. He wants to take us there and understand some very special kind of people; these are characters no one usually points a camera at. As if saying if you can grasp some understanding from such dark corners of society than maybe we will be better people as a whole. It is easy to play the blame game, but it is something else entirely to try and find answers. Even if at the very end there are no answers, the journey itself is the reward. Crucial experiences that will change your life forever and which many times are triggered by a death. The ending of one thing is the beginning of something else. This kind of ideology appears constantly throughout the film. Frank ends his streak of bad luck and finally saves somebody. The death of Mary Burke’s father leads her towards a relationship with Frank. Marc Anthony’s (He has moments in this film) character Noel, Mary Burke explains, was not always crazy. Some drug dealer shot him in the head and like Mary said “He wasn’t the same since”. The man Noel once was is dead, which is a great example on how death doesn’t always mean dead and buried. The idea of being dead can also correlate to some people who are walking around like the living dead, while loved ones wonder what the hell happen to you?? The fact that I can experience all these emotions, thoughts and continually laugh throughout the film because of the human comedy made me a big admirer of this film. Classic Scorsese at the end of the day can make you laugh one minute then shock you the next all the while caring about the characters. At the end of the film as Frank lies down with Mary Burke and closes his eyes for that sleep he has been dreaming for, I feel his peace.
ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds"