Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

D: Martin Scorsese
S: Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette

ER meets After Hours (with a touch of Mother, Jugs & Speed) in this blackly comic drama from director Martin Scorsese. Nicholas Cage continues his career of portraying characters on the edge as a stressed out emergency services ambulance driver patrolling the streets of New York city in the early 1990s. Over several almost sleepless nights, he finds himself increasingly haunted by visions of a girl whose life he failed to save, especially because a man he has just succeed in saving is surviving only on life support. This causes him to evaluate the quality of life itself, and as he becomes increasingly attached to the man's troubled daughter (Patricia Arquette), he experiences various different types of adventures with three co-drivers (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore), which put his values in perspective.

As in Taxi Driver, the film is dominated by a subjective perspective, making New York into a surrealist phantasmagoria of bizarre, tragic, violent, and comic incident. Yet, despite the much vaunted re-teaming of writer Paul Schrader (Affliction) with Scorsese, this film and this screenplay, adapted from the novel by Joe Connelly, is a more benign dreamscape than expected. Despite a darkly ironic narrative resolution, the film tends to push black humour to the fore as the ambulance men toss out the quips and come up with varying responses to the challenges of their job, from alcohol to aggression. It is also less cinematic, because despite the Natural Born Killers-style visual excess with which Cage's advancing dementia is portrayed, the story is all too novelistic. The drama tends to evolve through a series of convenient co-incidents, with Marc Anthony making a variety of re-appearences which illustrate different facets of the main characters' personalities, and a number of other sub-plots and thematic strands tying in in a much too conventional fashion. The film lacks a sense of the randomness of city life which After Hours thrived upon. It also fails to question the slippage between coherence and insanity which supposedly motivates Cage. He doesn't so much descend into hyperconsciousness as experience a variety of hallucinations which eventually produce one of those Hollywood Freudian moments of decision and closure, which though thought-provoking, wraps things up with all too little irony to be effective.

Though the elaborate visual style is in many ways as technically impressive as it was in Kundun, the same problem dogs this film as that. There is ultimately little enough genuine penetration of the character and his world, as events seem overdetermined by narrative contrivance. Despite what seems to be an earnest attempt to explore the internal landscape, the film is vehemently external. The dialogue is much too crisp and, dare I say it, Tarantinoesque, to provide much insight into character, and as the movie charts the developing relationship between Cage and Arquette, it doesn't so much reserve moral judgment as leave it to the plot to resolve the issues. In this sense it is probably of most interest in terms of literary adaptation, which is surprising for a film which, on the surface anyway, is full of visual excitement and excitation.

For his part, Cage is convincingly haggard, but has less to work with than he had in Leaving Las Vegas. His character comes off as excessively self-absorbed rather than genuinely introspective, and though the actor obviously enjoys playing the dark and quiet side against the moments of hysteria which come later in the movie, it is not an entirely authentic human being. He is too much given to novelistic self-reflection and subject to the vagaries of narrative structure to give a sense of autonomy and free will which might draw the spectator into his story. Support from the rest of the cast has the same problem. While fine in themselves, the actors grapple with characters who are cyphers for aspects of the moral fabric of the world in which the film is set (Scorsese himself contributes the voice of a dispatcher). Lacking the strong centre which Cage's character is supposed to provide due to the difficulties outlined above, the audience is left with a series of amusing vignettes which seem somehow more, not less, cartoonish than the loonies who populated the New York of After Hours.

As a Scorsese film, it is not without interest. It is technically impressive (if, as noted, more technique than style), with a typically well-chosen song score and dynamic editing. Cinephiles will probably enjoy discussing the transition from Angel of Vengeance to Angel of Salvation between this and Taxi Driver and debating if this kinder, gentler Scorsese is a reflection of or a reaction to changes in the director's world. Though it is a pity to see a director once as groundbreaking and influential as this (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) appearing to be a pale reflection not only of himself, but of other, lesser filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino), it is also worth noting that by comparison with a lot of contemporary films, Bringing Out the Dead does have at least some degree of moral content and an identifiable point of view. It does not use postmodernist visual excess to escape moral meaning, as Stone did in Natural Born Killers, nor does it play with form simply for form's sake, as Tarantino sometimes does (Pulp Fiction). Though again, this does mean that it is a bit too literal and literary for its own good as a film, it is admirable that audiences are being asked to evaluate characters in terms of literally life-affecting questions rather than transitory emotional or political rhetoric.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.