[box cover]

Bringing Out the Dead

Paramount Home Video

Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman,
Tom Sizemore, and Ving Rhames

Written by Paul Schrader,
from the novel by Joe Connelly

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Context is everything. If Bringing Out the Dead had been the debut film of, say, Quentin Tarantino, it would have been heralded by reviewers as the start of a brilliant career. They would have exclaimed over its masterly command of the camera, its solid story structure, and its wise, scuffed-shoe knowledge of the street. But instead it was the 34th film, including short subjects and documentaries, by Martin Scorsese, and his fourth collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (though doesn't it seems as if they've worked on many more films than that?). As such, the film was deemed a comedown, another deflection from the true trajectory of Scorsese's career toward that ultimate iconic gangster film to end all gangster films, which may indeed come to us some day in the form of a biopic about Dean Martin.

We demand more from a Scorsese film. We look to his work for solace in a field of otherwise mediocre, unimaginative, and visually impoverished mere "product" from Hollywood. In fact, we may demand too much, so much that we sometimes can't see the value of what is before our eyes, so that disappointment often evolves over the passing years into a certain regret that we didn't appreciate the genius of a given film at the time it was released (call it the Stanley Kubrick Syndrome). But if Dead failed to tickle the critics, it really failed to draw audiences. Bringing Out the Dead, released by Touchstone on the 24th of October, 1999, cost $32 million dollars, and in its initial run grossed a disastrous $16 million dollars, according to the IMDB. (By the way, if you think that the reception of Bringing Out the Dead is a bummer, consider the fate of Broken Vessels, Scott Ziehl's black comedy about drug addicted Los Angeles EMS service drivers starring Todd Field. Though it was made before Dead, it came out afterwards, and died in its toxic wake).

Seeing the film again on DVD confirms my initial impression that Dead is alive with emotion, action, comedy, and passion, and that it's one of Scorsese's best films — focused, felt, funny — in years. And he derives such an outstanding performance from Nicolas Cage that it's possible to forsee a long term collaboration between the two of them to rival Scorsese's association with Robert De Niro. This usually over the top actor was for once (for me), a joy to watch. One of the funniest moment occurs in Chapter 15 on the disc, when Marcus (Ving Rhames) asks Cage what the ghosts Cage sees tell him, and Cage, as he turns in his seat to face his partner, replies slowly with mounting comic mock craziness, "They say KILL MARCUS, OK?" And the way he assures John Goodman that he is not off his rocker enough to starve himself ("I eat. Larry. I eat") is beautifully delivered and filled with raw yet modulated emotion. Also, Cage proves to be an excellent physical actor. There is a simple beauty in the movements with which he kneels down to "bring out the dead" from their ghostly haunts below the street during one dream sequence.

The movie is based on an autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly. It comprises a delineated few days in the life of a EMS medic named Frank Pierce (Cage), who spent his early childhood in the very neighborhood of New York City where he now cruises for bruises and much worse. In keeping with a general "threefold" approach of the film, or "trinity" given that the pious Schrader is the writer, Pierce rides in succession with three partners, each one adopting a different means of dealing with the horror and insanity they face each night. First there's Larry (John Goodman), whose stomach dictates his behavior; then there's Marcus (Ving Rhames), whose blend of religious fervor and sexual seductiveness keeps his mind occupied and off the street; and finally there is Tom (Tom Sizemore), who takes the tack of acting as crazy as the people he helps. Meanwhile, Pierce has fallen for Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a heart attack victim whose life he has prolonged. He follows her around the city when he is off duty, learning about her troubled past and helping her out of scrapes. Throughout all this, the haunted, increasingly cadaverous Cage sees the ghost of Rose (Cynthia Roman), a pregnant girl he failed to save one night. Pierce is seeking redemption or peace, and though there isn't a lot of suspense as to whether he is going to find it, the trip is powerful. This is one of the richest stories that Scorsese has brought to the screen in years, abundant in incident and subtle in nuance, and the cast is, at least to one viewer, brilliant at bringing out the passion.

If the film has a conceptual flaw it is the source of Cage's depression. Just what is its cause? He says it's because he's lost it, hasn't saved a life in months, or at least that is how his situation and mental state are accounted for narratively. But he is so depressed, can his lowspirits be caused solely by a a few incidents, especially when everyone else around him seems to be coping? Is he a burnt out case, or is there some larger moral or philosophical basis for his state of mind. Both Scorsese and Schrader embrace religious images and themes, and the fact that his sorrow is a prelude to Pierce becoming a God-like taker and giver of life is perhaps not as clearly delineated as it could be.

The 2.35:1 widescreen transfer to DVD is clean and sharp (though on the DVD I watched there were two moments of scrambling, at the end of Chapter 17 when Cage climbs out of a crashed ambulance, and a little later in Chapter 18 ). Robert Richardson's cinematography brings a cutting harshness to the city where the emotional Cage, a "grief mop," lives with his nerves frayed and searching for quietude and salvation. Richardson's custom of planting direct overhead lights that temporarily overexpose the actors as they move along their paths, as he has done in the many Oliver Stone films he has shot, both rhymes with the street-lamp illuminated world where the characters dwell, and also serves to brutalize them just a little more. His imagery survives well the transfer to DVD. A CGI moment in Chapter 28, when Cage sees muliple duplications of Rose in a group of women loitering on the street from his ambulance, is one of the rare instances where trick computer imagery actually contributes to the theme and tone of the film it is in.

Additional features of this DVD are limited, but not unhelpful. Scene selection is useful for film students. And a short interview documentary shows Scorsese and Connelly articulate and comfortable about the film, while Cage gropes as he tries to come to grips with what he is bringing to the film and what it demands from him. Two trailers are almost identical yet the second one somehow manages to convey more excitement about the film.

— D. K. Holm

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