Holy Hell! Bringing Out the Dead Turns 20

Holy Hell! Bringing Out the Dead Turns 20

Bringing Out the Dead remains a terminally underrated work for Scorsese.

Sandwiched between the divisive Kundun and the long gestating Gangs of New York in his filmography, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead remains a terminally underrated work for the director. Adapted from Joe Donnelly’s novel by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, the film functions best as a rebuke of that earlier Scorsese effort, replacing its haunting nihilism with a wounded humanism that is both stirring and hard won.

Bringing Out the Dead follows Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce, an EMT on a six month stretch of failing to save a single life. As in the best Schrader screenplays, Frank narrates the film, providing a view into his tortured psyche that enhances the proceedings. The film takes place over the course of several nights, as Frank works the job, tries in vain to get fired and comes to reconcile his role as in the cycle of life and death. Where Travis Bickle was a delusional vigilante whose disaffected rage led him to ruin, Frank feels more like a temporarily lost soul.

He’s a man whose vocation got him addicted to the high of playing God and saving lives. Wallowing in the absence of that light, he’s fiending for some kind of salvation. It marks arguably the greatest performance of Cage’s career, blending as it does the subtle nuance in the way he presents pain and the brash bombast in his more unhinged expressions. This turn stands alone in his pantheon as his most sincere and most affecting.

But it helps that he’s surrounded by one of the most perfect casts Scorsese has ever assembled, including an incredible performance from Patricia Arquette as the daughter of a man Frank tries to save, and an insane trio of character actors forming a fascinating trifecta of Frank’s riding partners. John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore come off like the three ghosts of “A Christmas Carol” joining Frank on each night of his own personal hell. (Not to mention a killer performance from singer Marc Anthony as a tragicomic vagrant who serves as the film’s heart.)

That extended ensemble is part of what makes it such an interesting rhyming picture for Taxi Driver. In that earlier film, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman showed an iconic vision of New York City jaundiced by the loneliness and disgust of a youthful outcast. Twenty years later, now with Robert Richardson behind the camera, Scorsese looks at his city with different eyes, wearier ones.

Frank sees a city haunted by the people he couldn’t save and everyone left out in the cold by a system that doesn’t value or recognize their humanity. Scorsese colors in the background between the more harrowing tragedies with the kind of absurd interludes that characterized his equally under-loved After Hours. This blending of the macabre with the sincere, the maudlin with the hilarious, opens the door for a more affecting look at the plight of human life than almost any other Scorsese picture.

Revisiting the film now, Bringing Out the Dead feels like an important middle step between Travis Bickle and the Ernst Toller of Schrader’s recent First Reformed, tracking the relative viewpoints of these entwined authors and how they see the world around them. Scorsese may have had other stylistic and technical heights are the release of this film, but nothing he’s made in the ensuing years has had this much heart.

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