Bringing Out the Dead (1999): Scorsese Directs Schrader Script, Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames

In a radical departure from Kundun, an historical epic that was basically an arthouse film, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead reteams him for the fourth time with writer Paul Schrader in a film that recalls in many significant ways Taxi Driver, their first collaboration.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Bringing Out the Dead
Bringing out the dead.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on Joe Connelly’s pulp novel, it’s a quintessentially New York nocturnal tale of the occupational hazards, joys, and sorrows of a paramedic, splendidly played by Nicolas Cage, as he “routinely” goes about his job of saving people’s lives.

Dark humor, amusing moments, visual pyrotechnics, and bravura acting from the entire ensemble help immensely what’s by necessity a highly intense, full of gory details, movie that the large public might not find appealing or entertaining. Paramount (domestically) and Touchstone (internationally) release should have a moderate theatrical run, likely to reach the underwhelming numbers of Scorsese’s crime opus, Casino.

The late British director Michael Powell once fondly described Scorsese as “the Goya of Tenth Avenue,” a label that perfectly applies to his new effort. Though not as resonant or brilliant as his landmark New York trilogy (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull), Bringing Out the Dead is a decent, well-made movie that displays admirable balance between the serio, the comic, and the absurdist elements that define paramedics’ highly demanding jobs.

Schrader, whose last script for Scorsese was The Last Temptation of Christ, actually improves on the source material, which is written by Connelly as a dense stream-of-consciousness account, based on his experience as an ambulance driver. More shapely than the book from a dramatic standpoint, the tense script is punctuated by much needed romantic and comedic interludes that modulate what’s fundamentally a hysterical, if dynamically vibrant yarn, epitomized by a speeding ambulance as it charges from one pressing assignment to another. Also quite effectively, Schrader reduces the novel’s first-person narration to a minimum and eliminates its heavy religious symbolism.

Though Bringing Out the Dead is a more mature work, critics will unavoidably perceive it as “Taxi Driver a generation later,” and not only because of the protagonists’ similar professions. Like Taxi’s Travis Bickle, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a man on the edge, an insomniac loner who works the graveyard shift, and in the midst of his work’s hustle and bustle undergoes a severe spiritual crisis that can lead to either self-destruction or redemption, two motifs that run consistently in Scorsese’s three-decade oeuvre. There are also echoes of Scorsese’s After Hours: Like the 1985 noir comedy, pic is a nocturnal journey structured in terms of brief encounters that progressively get more desperate and hilarious.

Story is set in the early 1990s, when New York City’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) was in disorder; in 1996, EMS was put under the jurisdiction of the Fire Department, which introduced some organizational improvements. This background is important for it conveys the chaos and wilderness in which Frank and his associates operate: urgent calls, heavy traffic with screaming sirens and flashing lights, overcrowded hospitals, hysterical victims.

The streets are populated with pimps and prostitutes of various colors, drug dealers, cokeheads and crack heads, homeless people, innocent pedestrians, and even arguing Russians and religious Jews.

The film follows Frank over the course of two days and three nights (56 crucial hours, to be precise), as he threatens to collapse out of exhaustion and sink into the abyss. Haunted by the visions of Rose (Cynthia Roman), the girl he failed to save, Frank knows that there’s nothing like the joy of preserving a human life. Indeed, in the first scene, he rescues an older man, Mr. Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson), who was presumed to be dead, and brings him to the hospital’s ER. As soon as he meets Burke’s sensitive and distraught daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), a former druggie whose character recalls Jodi Foster’s teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver, he falls for her, determined to help her deal with the ordeal.

The filmmakers dwell on how paramedics come face-to-face with the dead and the dying on a daily basis. Burnt out by their demanding jobs, they are broken, both physically and spiritually. What keeps them going is a caustic sense of humor, a worldview that is at once humane and acrid. Each night, Frank teams with a different partner as they go about their business. It’s Frank’s distinctive interactions with each partner that provide the film its texture–and most entertaining elements, for ultimately the narrative is about survival, or how these pros cope with the kind of miseries that are inherent to their chores.

Unlike the emotionally involved Frank, who keeps no separation with the suffering around him, Larry (John Goodman) endures through cool detachment–and his varied nightly meals. In contrast, Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) is as savagely dangerous as his patients, a borderline sociopath whose sense of justice is utterly demented. Fatalism and Christianity seem to be the guiding principles for Marcus (Ving Rhames), who has experienced what Frank has gone through but has found a way to deal with death, convinced that every man has his own pre-determined biological clock.

With the exception of Arquette, who gives an adequate (but no more) performance, rest of the cast is first-rate. In his best role since the Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas, Cage is suitably cast as a tormented, empathetic man in desperate need for salvation and sleep; last image, in which Cage tenderly rests on Arquette’s chest, achieves a poetic tone.

No Hollywood film since Boogie Nights and Out of Sights has been blessed with such a large and superlative ensemble of secondary characters, with standouts from Goodman, Sizemore, and Rhames as the three vastly radical partners. Also hitting high notes in small roles are Mary Beth Hurt shines as a cynical nurse, Arthur Nascarella, as the Captain who refuses to fire Frank, March Anthony as a pathetically crazed homeless, and Afemo Omilami, as a cool hospital guard who never removes his sun glasses.

Arguably the most surreal and psychedelic pic Scorsese has ever made, Bringing benefits from its mostly nocturnal on-location shooting (primarily Hell’s Kitchen). Ace lenser Robert Richardson has successfully devised elaborate lighting techniques and camera rigs for the interior dialogue scenes within the confined space of an ambulance.

The masterly-staged climactic sequence, in which drug lord Coates falls onto a fence of a balcony, achieves the kinds of dazzling effects and fireworks that recall the climax of Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge. Distinguished contributions are also made by Dante Ferretti, particularly his garish, pink-lit design of “the Oasis,” Coates’ refuge for those suffering in the real world, and by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who accomplishes wonders in her seamless, often hypnotic montages of street scenes.

Bringing Out the Dead may not occupy a major place in Scorsese’s pantheon, but it’s the best possible filmic adaptation of material that’s not great literature in the first place.

Unfairly dismissed by most critics, and failing at the box office, Bringing Out the Dead is one of Scorsese’s most underestimated pictures, one that deserves a second look.

Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce
Patricia Arquette as Mary Burke
John Goodman as Larry
Ving Rhames as Marcus
Tom Sizemore as Tom Wolls
Marc Anthony as Noel
Cliff Curtis as Cy Coates
Nestor Serrano as Doctor Hazmat
Afemo Omilami as Griss
Mary Beth Hurt as Nurse Constance
Aida Turturro as Nurse Crupp
Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. Burke
Sonja Sohn as Kanita
Michael K. Williams as a Drug Dealer
Martin Scorsese as the voice of Male Dispatcher
Queen Latifah as the voice of Dispatcher Love
Judy Reyes as an ICU nurse


Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on Bringing Out the Dead
by Joe Connelly
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Production companies: Paramount, Touchstone Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (North America)
Buena Vista International (International)
Release date: October 22, 1999 (US)
Running time 121 minutes
Budget $32 million
Box office $16.8 million