I'm not sure why "Bringing Out the Dead" hasn't received much attention compared to Scorsese's other films. I feel it stands up to them all, or more accurately, fits right in with them. Of course you set a rather high bar when you compare any film to "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" (even if it's the same director) but it belongs in their company. For a film that simply follows an ambulance around for a good part, the ambulance sequences are thrilling, showing us the world as it may look to those who strive to move like sharks to save lives, although each stop drains something away from them.
Scorsese gives us the too bright lights at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy Hospital where patients line the hallway, as others who can't get in bleed in the waiting room. It's remarkable that people function in this setting, but they do, as if it's just another place to work. The city is as dark as the hospital is bright, and of course the ambulance running back and forth brings it's own lights with it, and music too, as if the rides back and forth from the city to the hospital are simply possibility. Once you get there, what's done is done, but there's a kind of faith at work between the two stops. Every ambulance ride is about the effort to save and the energy comes through visually.
I think of Scorsese's work with Paul Schrader as it's own body of work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ) all dark movies, concerned with the intricacies of the lost and tortured soul. It's interesting that Schrader studied theology, and Scorsese makes no secret of being a Roman Catholic. While I would not call any of their works "religious" they are all very focused on man's inner life, variation's of "God's lonely man." and what makes him tick, and what he carries around.
In "Bringing Out the Dead" Frank's NY is Travis Bickle's NY, only a little further down the road. It has a behind the scenes feeling, like this is what happens after Travis Bickle goes home at night. Frank is a man, who unlike Bickle isn't searching for a calling, as he already has one. Like a prophet in the old testament, being in the desert too long is wearing him down. We catch him in the middle of a "dark night of the soul." Since he lost "Rose," a homeless girl, on a call, he can't seem to save anyone. When he resuscitates Mary's father, you could argue that he's saved someone but it doesn't hit him that way. As we see later in the movie, this act is simply a matter of buying time, keeping the body alive, more for the benefit of the family than the man, which ties in with his own thinking about his role.
When he's on call, driving around NY is like descending into hell to give out ice water. It's also like gambling, taking calls in hopes that one of them will pay off, and he can be god again. Until that happens, he functions as a "grief mop" bearing witness to people's most trying times. Like Dante, Frank needs a guide to get where he's going, and here he has three of them, his paramedic partners; Larry who can still treat the job as a job, Marcus who has turned to faith to cope, and Wolls who has turned psychotic, (if he wasn't that way to begin with.) In a way, they also resemble Scrooge's ghosts, their presences suggesting a past, present and future. Well adjusted Larry makes sense as the past and sociopath Wolls as the future. Marcus as the present isn't as obvious, but if we take a close look, especially at Marcus' favorite story, of almost falling before being caught by god, and compare this to Frank nearly falling when he saves Cy the drug dealer, the parallel makes more sense. They both function on a kind of faith, but Frank's faith is more of a grounded one, trusting in the physical rope rather than waiting for the supernatural. Frank doesn't need more of the supernatural, as it is, he can't stop seeing the ghost of Rose on every corner. His solution to this is a physical one, to save somebody.
His turning point isn't resuscitating Mary's father, but bringing Mary home from Cy's after she falls off the wagon, and getting himself some sleep on her couch. He feels like he's saved somebody because, not unlike Orpheus, he went into Mary's darkest place and brought her out. She tells us she's been clean for years, but the prospect of her father dying is too much for her. Despite her dislike of Cy, she can't help but seek him out for his help. The man/ woman dynamic here has little to do with the romantic either, which is part of what makes it work. Frank falls asleep on Mary's couch, because after he's retrieved her, he feels companionship which isn't tied only to doing his job. From there, it's not as far to go to feel like god again, and when he saves Cy, we can see that he's on an upswing. He's able to let Mary's dad go at this point, which is presented as a service to the man as if he doesn't need the life saving "technicality" anymore and knows that the right thing is to let him go.
We're not sure if Frank can really hear the thoughts of Mary's dad, but we know at least that he thinks he can, and they do seem logical enough. And we don't need to wonder if that's really Rose he sees everywhere. The important thing is that he sees her. He's a guy surrounded by ghosts, because some people for some reason just stick with you more than others. We don't even always know why. In Rose's case, it may have been his difficulty in trying to revive her, or something about the way she looked, likely a combination of factors. When he takes drugs at Cy's place we see that he has other ghosts on his mind, but Rose is the central one, she puts a face to his failure.
Scorsese does a remarkable job making this dreary world an engaging place. His use of music and bright lights makes these ambulance rides like none we've ever seen. The adrenaline rush of saving lives comes through in the filming as does the let down of living between calls. This role is perfect for Nicholas Cage and one look at him sells the idea that he's falling apart. He plays Frank like a sleep walker who is almost nudged awake every now and then. Surrounded by the dead, and those dealing with the dead makes him a very lonely guy, and watching him try to connect with the world, the awkwardness of it all is obvious.
John Goodman is a great contrast as Larry the most stable of the paramedics we meet here. He has everything in it's place and serves as great contrast to show us that in this film, we're not pretending that every paramedic is like Frank. They do all have their own ways of coping, and Larry's method of choice is food. His presence when Frank fails to save Rose adds gravity to the situation that using the other more unhinged paramedics wouldn't have done. Ving Rhames is also great to watch. His evangelist persona combined with his fixation on being a ladies man, makes him an entertaining character. While he certainly likes to push the Holy Ghost, he's not above cheap theatrics worthy of a tent revival preacher. His solution to the angst is not one that interests Frank at all, being as intangible as his story of almost falling off a building. Tom Sizemore is a standout here, his performance gives us a guy so disturbed it's uncomfortable to watch him. He's as likely to kill someone as he is to save them, and if not for Frank's second thoughts, he would've killed Noel. He's the most cautionary tale of Frank's partners.
The rest of the supporting cast is terrific. Patricia Arquette gives us a Mary who's temporarily as lost as Frank is. She's consumed by regret that she hadn't made peace with her father, and faced with his possible death, her years of sobriety are tested. Her verbal assault on Frank, who walks her to Cy's place, reveals that she's well aware she isn't doing what she should. She gets back to a more sensible place and having Frank as a kind of sounding board seems to help her as much as him, although we sense that this could well be just a temporary universe to get them through the worst of it. Cliff Curtis gives us an original drug dealer. He presents himself as an alternative doctor, out to make everyone relax. His conversation with Frank when he's stuck on the railing is one of the most interesting scenes in the film. The sparks from the torch look like fireworks, as Cy considers his mortality. Despite it all, he loves the city, even knowing that it's going to kill him.
Marc Anthony's portrayal of Noel is central to the film. And he does a wonderful job playing a man who is mentally damaged in a way that makes him entirely unpredictable. Frank keeps crossing paths with him as if Noel is the embodiment of what he doesn't know. Every time they bring him to the hospital, he's released and ends up back there again. He screams for a cup of water, but the doctor informs us that water is the last thing he needs. Still, he ends up getting the water, as people can't absorb the idea that water could hurt him. Giving him the water seems an attempt to make his treatment less inhumane, but in fact that attempt at kindness hurts him. His situation is similar to keeping Mary's dad alive. It seems the kind thing to keep him from dying, but at the same time, they're overriding what his body wants to do, until finally Frank lets him go.
Frank sees himself as a part of "God" when he's saving lives. He tells us, "Saving someone's life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn't feel the earth - everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you've become immortal, as if you've saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there - why deny that for a moment there, God was you?" However, he also tells us that no one can bear the other side of that, and take the blame when things go wrong, even though we watch him doing just that, because whether he admits or not, playing god requires someone taking the credit to take the blame as well, certainly one of the oldest theological dilemmas.
Frank tells Mary "We're all dying." and more than most, he knows that no one is exempt. Who he can save or not, is often outside his control. As he points out, all of his training is useless on most of his calls. People live and die and which is better isn't always clear cut. It's certainly not always up to Frank. While he loves the feeling of saving a life, by acting as god, he's setting himself up for responsibility that he can't handle. Finally, he lets himself off the hook, and Rose appears at the end as if to confirm it. She says "It's not your fault. No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea." He finally understands that he's just a guy trying to do his part, he doesn't make the decisions, and as a result he can get some rest. He can find his own suffering, he doesn't need to carry everybody else's.
Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) and his fellow EMT's serve as NY's clean up crew. Frank sees the dead and dying every day and it takes its toll on him. He's overworked as there's more than enough misery to keep whatever crew is available going around the clock, and he can't turn away. He visits people at their most vulnerable times, and tells them what he thinks they need to hear, but it's a one way transaction. His only sense of companionship is with those in the field, his fellow paramedics and the staff at the "Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy" hospital.
Frank is sleepwalking through the middle of a bad spell, where he can't seem to save anybody. One case in particular, a homeless woman named Rose (Cynthia Roman) sticks with him, giving a face to every recent failure. He sees Rose's ghost everywhere, in random street scenes, and women he's looking at seem to turn into her. Frank is another version of "God's lonely man" although unlike Bickle, he has a calling as much as he might like to abandon it. He tells us "Saving someone's life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn't feel the earth - everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you've become immortal, as if you've saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there - why deny that for a moment there, God was you?" But given his bad luck, he reevaluates his role, concluding that he's a "grief mop," whose main purpose is to bear witness to all the suffering he visits.
He doesn't have to do this alone (at least not in a physical sense) and his partners are a good gauge for Frank's condition. His first partner in the film, Larry (John Goodman) is a paramedic who doesn't what he does as a calling, so much as a job. Larry plans to have his own ambulance outfit one day and doesn't appear bothered by any of their calls. Not having the same thing for lunch two days in a row, is as important to him as any injured person they're responding to. Goodman really gets the part down, and it makes sense that we start the journey with his stability as a balance to Frank's sure sliding off the rails. He's with Larry when they get a call about a man having a heart attack. When the man appears to die, Frank tells the man's daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette) to put on some Frank Sinatra when she says that's the music her father likes. Against all expectations, Frank gets a heartbeat from the dead man, as if he can turn his bad luck streak around by force. He uses the same approach with the hospital. They tell him they have no room, but he wheels in new patients anyway. In this case though, he has no other options, he can't keep them in the ambulance.
He runs into Mary several times at the hospital as she waits on her father with the rest of the family. He develops an interest in her, although he has no real sense of social skills. It doesn't really matter though, since this isn't an everyday exchange, Mary is having a hard time coping with the sudden tragedy, and is so wrapped up in her own grief, she's unapproachable to Frank, except in his role as a part of the medical system. Frank doesn't seem to really know the difference though, as his attraction to her seems another part of him trying to break his bad streak, maybe he can help her. Mary takes pity on a man, Noel, strapped down at Mercy, screaming for a glass of water. We're informed that water is the last thing Noel needs, as he has a kidney problem, and water could have serious consequences. Mary doesn't hear that though. She can't get over the fact that her friend is screaming for a little water and no one wants to help him. She lets him go and Frank doesn't even think to stop her. Larry and Frank run into Noel on the street, covered in blood and making a scene on the street. Frank is able to calm him down by assuring him they have a room at the hospital where they can kill him if he wants. Frank stops by the station and expects to be fired, even demanding his captain fire him. "I'll fire you tomorrow." he says, which Frank has certainly heard before.
Frank's second partner is Marcus (Ving Rhames) more of a character than Larry was. Marcus can't stop telling a story about almost falling off a ledge, but miraculously being pulled back. He loves to talk about women and Jesus. Frank knows how Marcus works and times the resuscitation of an overdose victim so that Marcus can present it as a supernatural healing for the benefit of the kid's friends. Marcus can't help but try and flirt with the dispatcher (Queen Latifah) who doesn't seem terribly amused by him, but can't stop giving out the calls. Mary's Dad starts showing cognitive signs and gets moved out of emergency. Frank stops at Mary's place and lets her know. Back out on calls, they find a woman who's about to deliver a baby, but insists that she hasn't had sex and can't even be pregnant. They deliver two babies, the one Marcus delivers is healthy, but Frank delivers one that's dead. Marcus gets a rush from the experience and tells Frank he wants to start working more nights. Frank pleads with Marcus not to take another call, but Marcus is energized and ready to go so ignores him. Marcus speeds off and narrowly avoids hitting a cab, but still ends up flipping the ambulance on it's side. Frank gets out and walks away, telling Marcus "I quit." Marcus tells him "It doesn't work that way. You need the Holy Ghost."
Frank checks on Mary's Dad and runs into Mary and follows her to a building nearby. She tells him how frustrated she is with the situation and asks him to wait outside for her since it's a dangerous building. He suggests that he come in with her but she insist that he stay outside. After waiting a while he knocks on the door and finds it's a drug dealer, Cy's (Cliff Curtis) apartment. Cy welcomes him in and tells him that Mary told him to pass on the message that she'd crash there for a while. He notices that Frank could use some relaxation himself, and after finding Mary sleeping peacefully, he agrees to take something that Cy offers. He starts feeling the drugs, but rather than relax he imagines himself pulling ghosts out of the ground, and then thinks of Rose, recalling his attempts to save her. He starts screaming upsetting everyone in Cy's house. He then grabs Mary and carries her out. He walks Mary home, ad she tells him that she knows Cy has hurt people, and could have been the one to put a bullet in Noel's head, making him crazy. She asks him what he wants from her, but he has no answer. He falls asleep on her couch while she tells him he can't stay. He wakes up refreshed feeling "as if I've turned a corner." He reports to the station and is assured he'll be fired tomorrow.
Hi last partner is Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) a paramedic in a worse place than Frank is. Tom seems an outright sociopath. He tells Frank that he admires his ambulance because "I can't kill her." illustrating by busting a headlight. He and Frank know each other very well and were even partners at one time. Wollis is completely unhinged. Frank visits Mary's dad in the hospital and finds his heart has stopped. A nurse tells him to shock him, as "he always comes back." Frank hears the man talking in his head however, telling him not to do it. Unable to help the nurse takes over and revives him again. They're called to a suicide attempt in the homeless community. Noting that the attempt is an unconvincing one, Tom makes the mentally disturbed man a patch to keep on his forehead to eliminate his suicidal tendencies. Frank loses his temper and scolds the man for not really trying. They're next called to the drug dealer Cy's apartment, where there was a shooting that left Cy impaled on a railing many stories above the street. Frank cuts the railing with a torch, almost falling when he cuts it free except that his coworkers strapped him to the building, enabling him to save Cy and himself.
At the hospital, Cy thanks him for saving his life. Frank checks on Mary's Dad again, finding they've shocked him fourteen times and are considering implanting a defibrillator to shock him when he needs it. He runs into Mary who apologizes for her stoned behavior. She asks about her father and tells him. "I think about how tough he was and now I know he had to be that way, to make us tough. Because, this city, it'll kill you if you're not strong enough." Frank tells her, "No, the city doesn't discriminate. It gets everybody." Before catching up wit Wolls, he tells her "We're all dying Mary Burke." Frank starts seeing Rose on the street again, after telling Wolls they have to keep moving, saying "No stopping. We're sharks. We stop. we die." Frank suggests they go break some windows, and Wolls tells him they need a reason first. They see Noel on the street again, breaking car windows with a bat. Wolls suggests they work him over. Frank insists that Noel is mentally ill and can't help himself. Wolls insists that noel knows exactly what he's doing and that they should team up to catch him. Frank approaches Noel who offers him the bat suggesting he take a few swings which he does. Wolls tries to sneak up on Noel, who runs when he sees him. They both chase him independently. Wolls finds Noel first and beats him savagely until Frank stops him and threatens to call for back up unless Wolls helps save him. Frank gives Noel CPR and they get him to the hospital.
Frank visits Mary's dad again, who is still being shocked regularly to stay alive. He hears him in his head again, asking him to "let me go." Frank puts the wires on his own chest and puts the breathing tube in his mouth to fool the monitors and let him die. He then starts attempting CPR, knowing it's too late. The doctor tells them to stop CPR and let him go. Frank offers to tell the family. He walks over to see Mary, and tells her about her father. In mid conversation, he sees her turn into Rose. He tells her "Forgive me Rose." She answers "It's not your fault. No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea." SHe then turns back into Mary, and he tells her that Noel will be alright. She asks him to come inside and he falls asleep with her.