Bringing Out the Dead
Review by Jason Morrison
Okay, so Martin Scorsese has never been known for cheery movies. GoodFellas, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver were all very good, dune in a large part to their portrayal of the depths of human nature, depicting progressions in and around sanity.
So before a single ad was shown, it was a safe bet that his new film, Bringing Out the Dead would be about the heroic paramedics, driving ambulances at breakneck speeds, saving lives left and right. No, we're going to see the downside to the job-the long hours, the exhaustion, the repetition, the grief, the death, the filth of the city. I can tell you right now that each and every one of the above is attended to.
But what makes this film fail to reach the level of the ones above is not just the absence of Robert De Niro.
Nicolas Cage plays paramedic Frank Pierce, a very worn-out looking man driving an ambulance through the worst part of New York City. He's burning out, no longer able to disassociate himself from the most terrible part of the job-loosing a patient. At one point he says that what he's been taught is only useful in 10 percent of calls, and the other 90 he's just there to help soak up the grief.
But instead of any kind of progression toward insanity or salvation, Frank stays at this same place for most of the movie, swinging through some strange misadventures in some of the most cruelly inhuman streets ever shown on film.
Frank's partner the first night is Larry (John Goodman). Frank just wants to get a break, but Larry is all business. They answer a heart attack call and soon after the man is presumed dead, he miraculously revives. Meanwhile Frank has become a bit bewitched by the man's daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette), though he tells her no to ride in the ambulance and to help her mother instead.
So far, so good. Though Cage and Goodman seem more like their reading really cool lines than talking to each other and the pacing is a bit odd, they have a great set up: man on the edge of loosing it saves hopeless man and finds a beautiful woman. But the film refuses to go anywhere, really, with this-within 15 minutes Frank's character is established and within another ten we have the gist of the story. What goes on from here is more of the same.
Frank shows up late for work the next day. The Captain tells him he's got no more sick leave, and Frank demands to be fired-tomorrow, his boss tells him, it's a full moon out tonight and he needs drivers. This time his partner is Marcus (Ving Rhames), sort of a cross between an ambulance driver, preacher and Barry White. Frank tells Marcus he's been seeing ghosts-one in particular, a little girl that he couldn't save. Marcus' answer is the holy ghost, as he proves with the improvised "resurrection" of an OD'ed addict.
Lots of weird stuff happens. One patient, Noel (Marc Anthony), runs in and out of the film begging for a glass of water and/or to be killed. Marcus tries to be suave to the dispatcher, but he and Frank end the night in a spectacular crash that flips the ambulance completely over. Frank laughs and runs off, saying he quits.
But it's not quite that easy. He's pulled back to the hospital by Mary (the love interest from before) and finds himself still haunted by the same ghosts. He ends up partnered with the psychotically enthusiastic Tom (Tom Sizemore). Lots of even crazier stuff happens, but I won't go into it.
So what's the point? In the end, the only resolution is that it's nice to have someone to hug. The film seems much more concerned with cinematography than cohesion.
Ever watch the lights from an ambulance for a while, until your eyes start to hurt? Then you have some idea how the camera acts through many of the scenes, especially when they're in the ambulance. Shots are exaggerated, we watch from seemingly random angles and the footage is even sped up here and there. We see a lot through Frank's eyes, and often the face of the girl he lost appears on those he sees. The effect is haunting, which is effective, but also overused-what could have been a hint here and there become fairly repetitive. That's one of the film's problems in general-what could have been interesting if it were worked into the rest of the film a little bit more and used a bit more sparingly becomes almost gratuitous.
For example, Frank's use of drugs and alcohol. Honestly. I'm not even going to talk about whether or not that's really accurate (I hope not)-but instead of it serving as a symbol for his state of mind or feelings of self destruction, by the end it's just gratuitous.
Cage is good, though I think he could have done more had he had the opportunity. A lot of his time on screen merely required him to look like hasn't slept in three weeks. He has, in this film, possibly the most baggy, irritated eyes ever recorded. The other standouts were Rhames, who interjected a bit of humor and a little more humanity into a somewhat artificial body of dialogue, and Anthony, who played a strangely memorable nutball, though his character wasn't allowed to go anywhere either.
There are a few really funny lines in this movie, too, though the humor is pretty dark. So are the non-humor parts, though, too-dark. And the credits. It's pretty much like spending too much time in a dark, loud tunnel, only to find out at the end that it looped around and never went anywhere.
I can understand the reason-being a paramedic is not a matter of progression, but of going out, doing the same things every night, facing the same death, the same filth, the same etc. But I think most of the audience can get the idea pretty quickly. So why bombard them with a headache-inducing soundtrack, or throw in random bits of imagery (a white horse wanders through one scene, practically screaming 'this is an art film!')? I don't know.
The cinematics I've called excessive have elsewhere been called groundbreaking, but this film seemed more like something to be endured than enjoyed, or even discussed.
(Out of five)