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Metro Pulse Bleak Streets

Martin Scorsese returns to familiar territory in Bringing Out the Dead, but from a different angle.

By Coury Turczyn

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Imagine having the responsibility of saving a few lives every day. Imagine being regularly thrust into instant life and death trauma, where your decisions could change people forever. Imagine being awash in the grief of families whose loved ones are suddenly dying. Imagine being unable to rescue the souls put in your care. It'd be enough to drive you crazy with remorse.

This is the world director Martin Scorsese invites us to visit in Bringing Out the Dead, an often surreal meditation on the day-to-day experiences of an EMS paramedic stationed in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Scorsese—long considered the master director of American cinema, the gritty realist who plunders the dark secrets of Mafia omerta and urban street life—offers another change-up in what has actually been a varied filmography. Although the comparisons to Taxi Driver are inevitable (both have a wacked-out guy driving the graveyard shift along dangerous city streets), Bringing Out the Dead is in truth a very different beast; while its scenario may indeed be based in an occupational reality, Scorsese's latest is more concerned with personal struggles rather than societal angst. It's a mood piece rather than an expose.

In fact, this is not a movie with a plot; Bringing Out the Dead focuses on one struggle: Can Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) get through his job without cracking up? There are no plot contrivances to get in the way of this single-minded query—no other job offers to weigh, no spouse threatening to leave him, no lengthy emergency missions to redeem his sense of purpose. Over the span of a few days, we see him try his best to remain upright as he's buffeted by soul-churning events—kids dying from gunshot wounds, homeless treated like human refuse, somebody's dad being forced to remain alive as little more than a vegetable. Not helping matters are a trio of coworkers who have all succumbed to their own madness: Larry (John Goodman) who obsesses over food, Marcus (Ving Rhames) who testifies a jumbled belief in the Lord, and Tom (Tom Sizemore) who gets adrenaline rushes from both saving people and hurting them.

The only glimmer of normality for Frank is the daughter (Patricia Arquette) of the man being shocked alive every few hours—but even then, Arquette's character isn't a traditional "love interest" so much as a distant life preserver for Frank's sanity. Bringing Out the Dead is a slice of miserable life, but one balanced with a dark humor and ravishing cinematography. And for my money, it's the most interesting film Scorsese has made since 1990's Goodfellas.

Of course, every Scorsese movie is dependably workmanlike—he's too smart to make horrendously bad decisions. But his last several movies have been merely "watchable" as opposed to passionately inspiring; Cape Fear was a sturdy noir potboiler, The Age of Innocence a passable Merchant/Ivory period piece, Casino yet another bloody Mafia tale, Kundun a stately epic. But none of these films get under the skin like his most notable works, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Even his movies that were condemned as failures had more of a brash originality, a feeling that he was experimenting with the form: New York, New York, King of Comedy, After Hours. Although all of his '90s films were respectable, none of them felt personal, as if Scorsese were in an inspiration slump. But with Bringing Out the Dead, he's back to making something different.

You can see it right away with the odd camera angles, the dark colors, the jittery framing—this film exists in its own world; it may be familiar, but Scorsese forces us into a perspective that grows progressively more skewed as Frank comes closer to his own personal edge. This is an extreme vision of New York in the early '90s—a nearly apocalyptic terrain of bombed-out tenements and dirty streets filled with drug-addicted whores and deranged, homeless scavengers. The emergency room where Frank drops off his patients is overrun by bleeding, screaming victims begging for help from a short-handed staff. This is not the Disney-fied Big Apple of today, but a slice of hell. And bringing it to the screen is Scorsese's all-star crew: screenwriter Paul Schrader, film scoring legend Elmer Bernstein, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The only thing marring all their marvelous work is Scorsese's overreliance on pop music; sometimes, cranking up a rock tune to match an onscreen montage works (as with several Clash songs)—other times it starts feeling like a music video when the slight pop songs don't match the film's mood.

But for all of Scorsese's craft, the film rests on Nick Cage's shoulders—can he keep us interested in this edgy sad sack though the course of a two-hour movie? Yes, of course he can—just as he did in Leaving Las Vegas. Cage can be sympathetic and completely off his rocker at the same time—you root for his redemption. Unlike previous unhinged Scorsese characters, Frank does not explode in a climax of violence; instead, he comes to grips with the passage of death, and finds a moment of peace. It's a quiet ending from a director who once made a point of jarring audiences with extreme emotions and extreme violence... more hopeful, perhaps, but no less unsettling.

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