Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, scripted by Paul Schrader from the 1998 Joe Connelly novel about paramedics in Hell’s Kitchen, is set in the early nineties – the pre-Giuliani years, before the renovations in Times Square and 42nd Street and at the height of the crack epidemic. Only a troll could feel nostalgia for all the sleaze and misery on display here, and yet there’s a sense in which Scorsese – who also collaborated with Schrader on Taxi Driver – is goosed by the grunge. Once again, this carnival of lost souls gives him the stylistic equivalent of an adrenaline boost; intellectually, Scorsese may not pine for the early nineties, but they’re custom-fit for his perpetual theme of redemption through suffering, and the vistas – the steam heat rising like hellfire from the streets, the phalanx of hookers and dopers, the whole vast detritus of the human comedy – leave him rapt. Scorsese used to make movies about this world when it was right on top of him; in Bringing Out the Dead, he’s serving up what amounts to livid pictographs from the cave of an earlier era. Not too much earlier, though. His point may be that there’s still a lot of Then in Now.
Scorsese has the ability to make you look at anything he puts on the screen, and he brings to this movie an aliveness that’s doubly remarkable considering how much of it was filmed in the cramped interiors of an ambulance, or in hospital emergency wards, so overly familiar to us from ER and its clones. But ultimately, Scorsese’s visual tropes and pirouettes, as well as the themes he plays out once again on these mean streets, are overfamiliar, too. Bringing Out the Dead is at once galvanizing and rote.
Nicolas Cage plays paramedic Frank Pierce, who has been working the graveyard shift for Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy hospital for about five years. Over the course of three nights and two days, we see Frank live out the horrors and occasional highs of his job while in a state of almost trancelike sleep deprivation. He sees all around him the specters of the dead he couldn’t raise, especially Rose, a homeless teenager he believes he killed while trying to save and whose accusatory gaze bears witness for all who have been lost. When he’s not feeling the godlike power of life-giving, Frank is racked with guilt, wanting only to quit his work – to close his eyes and drift off forever. His paramedic partners, one for each night, include the burbly Larry (John Goodman), who regards Frank as a liability; Tom (Tom Sizemore), whose sadistic streak complements Frank’s role as ruined angel; and Marcus (Ving Rhames, a real shot in the arm), a lascivious Christian revivalist who sweet-talks his favorite lady dispatcher as if he were Barry White and resuscitates a strung-out doper with ringing prayer.
The only person in the movie with whom Frank can carry on a near-normal conversation is Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the estranged daughter of a man he has brought back to life, if not sentience. Mary was going to be a nun once, before she turned to junk. Frank is from roughly the same urban Catholic background as she is; his mother used to tell him he looked like a priest. For those in the audience with an eye for Scorsese’s brand of religioso freneticism, it should come as no surprise that this Mary will cradle Frank Pietà-style – asleep at last.
When Scorsese and Schrader first read the novel by Joe Connelly, who worked for nine years as a paramedic in New York City, they must have recognized a soul brother. No wonder: The book was influenced by Taxi Driver and also Raging Bull, which Schrader co-wrote – not so much in its prose, which is less racy than straight-ahead, as in its religious-symbolic textures. The book shares the filmmakers’ predilection for what Schrader describes, in the film’s press notes, as “occupational metaphors,” and it’s been rather too faithfully adapted. Frank is saddled with enough metaphorical baggage to sink a tanker. No wonder Nicolas Cage seems slugged most of the time, only occasionally breaking into an inspired scat lunacy.
Frank is a doctor of the streets, an angel of mercy, a giver of life, a priest defrocked by his own suffering, a sinner. New York stands in for a lot, too: This Hell’s Kitchen is just that. (Imagine how different the film would be if Frank’s beat instead covered, say, the Upper East Side.) The city’s skankier nabes undoubtedly have a lot to answer for, but maybe it’s time to declare a moratorium on New York’s rep as ground zero of all sacrilege: The religio-metaphorical haze in Bringing Out the Dead gussies up the horrors. The filmmakers don’t recognize, as they did when they made Taxi Driver, that the true surrealism of the streets, the true black comedy, is best captured realistically – in the scrupulous, scarily unadorned detail. When Frank aids a drug lord impaled on a spike, and blowtorch-bearing police rescuers shower sparks into the air, the Fourth of July-meets-the Crucifixion tableau is too florid, too fake. And this is the movie’s big set piece, no less.
Scorsese doesn’t trust the power of simplicity to rock us. He’s not looking at hellfire, or anything else, with fresh eyes, and, coming after his last film, the Dalai Lama drama Kundun, that’s a letdown. Somewhat inert as narrative, Kundun was nevertheless an extraordinary stretch: With its ritualism and its patterned palette and its stillnesses, it represented a whole new way of seeing for Scorsese. And a new way of feeling too – a kind of contemplative delirium. Kundun was a heroic achievement for a filmmaker so far along in his career, and its commercial failure may have pushed Scorsese back into the safety zone of Bringing Out the Dead. His new film is worth seeing, and it’s delirious, all right, but it’s a delirious recap.