Bringing Out the Dead

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It’s not that I didn’t think Bringing Out the Dead would be good, it’s just that I didn’t realize it would be this good. This film is so underrated that it doesn’t even seem to have a solid base of people screaming about how underrated it is. That, plainly speaking, is baffling to me. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, it grabbed me immediately, and should be fairly well known as it’s directed by the great Martin Scorsese. I may find myself over praising this film a bit because it’s so underrated in my opinion, but I’ll try my best to keep away from that. It really is a good film though.

The first thing most people are likely to realize about Bringing Out the Dead is the similarity to Taxi Driver. This is really the only criticism I can see anybody hurling at Bringing Out the Dead; though I personally believe it strengthens the film to have the similarities in there, I could understand if people thought Scorsese was borrowing too much from his previous, and more successful, film. The main similarity is the main character; Cage’s ambulance driver draws a lot from De Niro’s taxi driver, but they actually are different. For one, Cage is a lot more balanced here than Travis Bickle. He also seems to relate to other people better. The things that connect them are more numerous, they both drive around at night into bad neighborhoods of New York City, they both can’t sleep, and most importantly, the really want to save people.

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is an ambulance driver in Hell’s Kitchen. The film shows him going out on calls over three successive nights. The job is clearly getting to him; he gets little sleep and sees the ghost of a girl named Rose he failed to save previously. He thinks he can put himself right if he is able to save another patient, but as he goes through the nights, he realizes that he has other jobs to do as well.

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On the first night, he goes out with Larry (John Goodman). Larry is relatively okay with his job compared to Frank and the others he goes out with. He gets through it by focusing on food. The first stop they make is to a cardiac arrest. He’s an old man, and Frank brings him back by telling the family to play some music he likes (Sinatra). He sort of makes friends with his daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette). While she’s stuck at the hospital waiting for her dad to come out of a coma, she talks to Frank in between his calls.

The scene where they take Mary’s father to the hospital is hilarious, and often repeats itself with slight variations as they bring in other patients. The whole film is variations on a theme in a way, to show you how the job grinds away at Frank. The hospital is called Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy, but the ambulance drivers call it “Misery.” It really is, though the characters there are so colorful they almost make up for the hectic and stressful atmosphere. Almost. The guard at the door is hilarious. His name is Griss and his ultimate threat is “don’t make me take off my sunglasses.” He doesn’t want to let them in because the place is so crowded. There’s always a doctor just inside the door saying unsympathetic, but also funny, things to patients, such as: “Sir, you say you’ve been snorting cocaine for three days and now you feel your heart is beating too fast and you would like us to help you. To tell the truth, I don’t see why I should. If I’m mistaken, correct me. Did we see you the cocaine? Did we push it up your nose?” See what I mean? She has a point and what she says is entertaining and all, but when you think about it, it’s not the kind of help you want out of a hospital. All the doctor’s complain when they bring Mary’s father in; they thought he was already dead and they didn’t have to worry about him anymore.

One of the best example of repetition in the film is Mr. Oh. “You’ll be going to the man who needs no introduction. Chronic caller of the year three straight and shooting for number four. The duke of drunk, the king of stink, our most frequent flier, Mr. Oh.” He’s a drunk that always passes out and calls to be brought to the hospital. Frank wants to help him because he’s an easy save; there’s not as great of a chance of him dying. Larry thinks it’s stupid that he keeps calling when there are more desperate cases out there. They go to get him repeatedly over the course of the film, just another part of the job that’s wearing Frank down. Noel (Marc Anthony) is a junkie who serves the same function. He keeps turning up, looking to kill himself one second and begging for water the next.

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The next night, Frank goes out with Marcus (Ving Rhames). He fancies himself something of a miracle worker. I found this very interesting because it continues Frank’s obsession with saving people into another person. There’s a scene where he allows Frank to save a junkie with his medical training while he has everyone pray for the junkie to come back. They time it perfectly so it seems like an act of God that answers Marcus, but really it’s Frank doing all the work. On one hand, this scene is hilarious because Rhames does it so well, and on the other it’s a bit concerning that he wants to be such a god-like figure. It really comes with the job. Marcus and Frank also help a woman deliver twins; Frank’s dies but Marcus’ is fine. This is another blow to Frank that basically cancels out the good he did the junkie.

All the while he continues to speak to Mary and vacillates between continuing his job and quitting it. As the film goes on, things get more and more surreal. This is particularly true in the scenes featuring Cy (Cliff Curtis), a drug dealer whose stuff promises relaxation. Religious imagery abounds, something one would suspect from Scorsese. I think Frank does end up saving somebody, but he is so worn out by the end of the film that he has become pretty unreliable. Again, similar to Taxi Driver (this ending is actually more morally ambiguous in my opinion), I got the feeling that Frank at least did what was right for Frank. If it was the best thing for everybody overall is another question.

I know everybody likes to pick on Nicolas Cage for going over the top, but he was perfect here. He completely embodied his character; he was Frank. He handled the voice over narration very well, as well as being able to manipulate his facial expressions. Sometimes he would look so dejected I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. He also handled the funny and out of control moments very well. This is probably the best I’ve ever seen him, though admittedly I haven’t seen him in very many films. Arquette brings an aura of innocence to the film that supports her casting. The rest of the cast holds up their end of the film as well.

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Scorsese is also in top form for this film. I really liked how he played with the lighting to make the white of their uniforms and the ambulance stand out more. It was really glaring. I felt like maybe he was trying to make them out to be angels or something? I’m not sure though. He also creates the more surreal sequences with Cy very well. He also literally puts himself in the film with a voice part as the ambulance dispatcher. He was very funny in the part and I appreciated him actually being in the film.

The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in a Scorsese film, which is saying something because he’s usually really great at picking songs. I didn’t actually know many of the songs before I saw this movie, but that worked because it contributed to the confusion. Even though I didn’t know the individual songs, the type of music (60s mainly) he used is pretty familiar to me. It sort of mirrors this films’ relationship to Taxi Driver. It’s the same, but different.

In my opinion, Bringing Out the Dead is one of Scorsese’s finest films. It has great performances, strong direction, a great character study to complement Travis’ in Taxi Driver, and an interesting point about saving people. Scorsese’s voice part is also a highlight. He builds on and in some ways does a variation on Taxi Driver, but by no means is he just recycling old material. It’s a great film that I would urge every Scorsese fan to take a look at.

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“Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Recent Cinematic Review
Recent Rorschach Reviews review
Ebert’s 1999 review

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9 responses to “Bringing Out the Dead

    • Awesome! I recommend it. May I suggest an experiment similar to the one I didn’t with the Alien franchise? If you watch this one before you watch Taxi Driver (you still haven’t seen that right?) I’d be interested to know how that goes. They’re not direct sequels or anything but they sort of follow some of the same patterns.

  1. Nice review and thanks for the mention. Glad you loved this as well, I’d put this with The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ as being one of Scorsese’s most underrated movies.

    • Thanks! And no problem. 🙂
      This is most definitely underrated. I haven’t seen either of those yet, but I hope to soon.

  2. GREAT review, Hunter, I love your enthusiasm 😀 I haven’t seen Taxi Driver (yes I know), though I feel like I have seen it just from all the pop culture references. I’m very curious about this one though, I know Cage *can* act, he just needs the right script and well, motivation, ahah.

    • Thanks Ruth! I hope you get to see the film someday! Cage really is good in it.
      Though I loved Taxi Driver when I saw it, I’m kind of scared to watch it again for some reason. It’s a tough film. This is a lot more humorous throughout and for that reason will probably be easier for most people to watch (me included).

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