Bringing Out the Dead

     You know Martin Scorsese, right? He’s the guy who makes all those really violent, disturbing movies about really warped, conflicted people. Usually they’ve got Italian mobsters in them, and lots of cursing and sex and violence, and a dash of good old Catholic guilt. Movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and Casino. Martin Scorsese is known as one of the greatest contemporary American directors.

     Well, now he’s made a movie about a warped, conflicted paramedic who’s got a guilt complex so intense he’s having hallucinations. The guy’s name is Frank Pierce (played brilliantly by Nicolas Cage) and he works the graveyard shift, which does nothing for his sanity. In Scorsese’s New York during late night/early morning, reality melts away into nightmare, and the streets become populated only by ghosts and crazies. We follow Frank’s adventures through this strange world over a period of about three days.

     And what’s all Frank’s guilt about? The patients he’s lost, of course. That’s the problem: the "of course." The whole premise of the movie is a rather weak one. We’ve heard the doctor-haunted-by-his-dead-patients story before. But then again, this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about. You’d figure a visionary director like him could make something good even out of a tired story like this one. And certainly he does his darnedest--this isn’t a bad movie by far. But it seems to be weighed down by Paul Schrader’s clunky screenplay.

     Scorsese has had very impressive collaborations with Schrader before (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ), but this time something seems to have gone wrong. It seems as if Schrader has lost his edge. His earlier work was just dripping with angst and twisted passions. It was physically uncomfortable to watch his characters as they tortured themselves on the screen. But Bringing out the Dead isn’t an uncomfortable movie. One actually almost feels safe watching it. It’s something of a mild black comedy.

     At first I thought this was a good thing. I’ve always been disturbed by Scorsese’s work before, and now here was a movie that I could relax with. But Scorsese and Schrader had disturbed me before because their work was so raw and painfully revealing. It examined humanity at its weakest and most self-destructive. Innovative and insightful movies are supposed to be a little disturbing. They go places other movies are afraid to go.

     So I realized that it wasn’t such a good thing that Bringing out the Dead is a comfortable movie. The truth is it just isn’t as complex as those other, flinch-away-from- the-screen movies were. Schrader summarizes Pierce’s entire dilemma at the beginning of the movie in a chunk of blunt narration (of which there is entirely too much), and symbolizes Pierce’s guilt over all the lives he couldn’t save in one character, a young woman named Rose. And then at the end of the movie all of Pierce’s intense guilt is suddenly swept away and all the loose ends are neatly tied up. That’s not the kind of ending we expect from an intense, innovative director like Scorsese. But I suppose I should have come to expect unsatisfying endings from Schrader (see Affliction, which Schrader wrote and directed).

     But even though the conclusion is too pat, there’s still some interesting symbolism going on. Pierce’s guilt is absolved by a character named Mary (Patricia Arquette of Stigmata), and the two of them then proceed to reenact the pietà, with Mary holding the exhausted Pierce in her arms while the two of them are surrounded by a heavenly white light. The movie is, in fact, littered with Catholic symbols and imagery, and that heavenly white light appears rather often throughout the film, shining down on the medical technicians and transforming them into fallen angels. And there are lots of other impressive visual effects, too. Framed by Scorsese’s camera, New York City becomes a surrealistic fantasy land full of weird, violent beauty. So at least Marty hasn’t lost his touch. And the acting is great--John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore each get to partner with Nicolas Cage on one night or another, and all of them have interesting characters whom they play well. Marc Anthony has a small but lovable part in neighborhood crazy guy Noel. And Patricia Arquette is adequate as Mary Burke, a concerned loved one of one of Pierce’s patients.

     And, yeah, the dialogue is usually good, too. Schrader doesn’t completely mess up. And, in fact, the movie itself is not a failure. If it had come from a debut director, everyone would have hailed him as the next great artist of American cinema. But we expect more from Scorsese. For a master like him, Bringing out the Dead is only a minor work.

Jim Genzano




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