Sooner or later, there would have to be fireworks in Bringing Out the Dead. On the pretext of dramatizing three nights of a Manhattan ambulance driver, Martin Scorsese has made a film that’s pure pyrotechnics throughout, lighting up the theater’s darkness with red pulsers, white screamers, jets of orange flame and the pinwheeling hazel of Nicolas Cage’s eyes. The character Cage plays, Frank Pierce, has acquired his fiery stare by going sleepless for too long, drinking too many dawn suppers of coffee and booze, delivering too many of his clients dead on arrival. “Ghosts,” he calls the ones he’s lost; but you don’t see much here of the wan and diaphanous. As if shot through Frank’s burning eyes, Bringing Out the Dead views late-night Manhattan as a spectacle of spiraling, strobing rocket-trails.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” someone asks Frank when at last the fireworks become literal, bursting over the skyscrapers as the soundtrack goes Gershwin. It is beautiful–and grotesquely funny, too, since the ambulance-bait who is granted this Woody Allenish epiphany is a drug dealer, impaled through the chest on a balcony rail.
I would like to save that moment, as Jean Cocteau wanted to save the flames from a burning house. The prefab structure of Bringing Out the Dead may ultimately collapse; and since it wasn’t really inhabited–not by anyone of flesh and blood–I let it go without regret. But how can I give up the sarcastic splendor that blossoms from this waste, this imposture, this display of excess?
Of course, Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, would like us to think that the waste, etc., represents the soul of Manhattan, rather than comprising the movie itself. Scorsese and Schrader deserve the benefit of every doubt; so I will proceed to give it to them.
Though based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead can immediately be identified as one of Schrader’s screen stories of a man burdened by a sense of guilt, who struggles through violence, substance abuse and heaps of garbage toward the redemption of a woman’s love. The most similar of Schrader’s collaborations with Scorsese, Taxi Driver, bypassed the main character’s conviction of sin, preferring to dwell on his rage against other people’s misdeeds. But if you’ve seen Light Sleeper, which Schrader himself directed, you will easily recognize the pattern in Frank Pierce.
One character in Bringing Out the Dead says Frank looks like a cop; another, that he’s got the face of a priest. Either vocation, if strenuously followed, might hollow the eyes and sharpen the beak, drive the hair upward from a throbbing brow, weight the head till it lolls forward, vulturelike. Years of witnessing humiliation and pain, ushering people out of a brutal world and rarely, all too rarely, saving another soul: Priests and cops sometimes show the effects, and so may ambulance drivers such as Frank, who by the start of Bringing Out the Dead has turned into Nicolas Cage in his death’s-head mode.
Months have passed since Frank last saved anyone, during which time the memories of lost lives have pressed on him. So it’s understandable that he overreaches at the movie’s beginning. He resuscitates a heart attack victim who’s already been declared dead. During the next three nights, Frank will suffer for this sin of playing God; but through his transgression, he will also draw closer to the man’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), whose middle name must surely be Magdalene. Sometimes she dresses like a Catholic schoolgirl (complete with hair cut in bangs), sometimes like a biker chick. She has been a great sinner herself, she informs Frank, in a monotone that bespeaks both her current vulnerability and a chronic sense of worthlessness. No wonder Frank trails her from the emergency room into the wilds of New York–he’s caught the odors of perfume and absolution wafting from a single tough package.