Give it to Martin Scorsese to keep coming back and hitting one out of the park. His latest is one of his best movies; it's in the lines of his '70s work, but it's also dynamically modern. The legendary filmmaker takes us back to the mean streets of New York, in the filth and dread of Hell's kitchen at night. This brings up some of the same themes of his 1976 "Taxi Driver" (quite possibly the best film of all time if you ask me), but this more a complement than a rehash. If "Taxi Driver" was about despair, "Bringing Out the Dead" is about grace. Travis Bickle's alienation drove him to violence, but Frank Pierce's troubled soul wants to save lives to gain peace of mind. Frank (played beautifully by Nicolas Cage) is a paramedic who drives his ambulance wherever disaster strikes. It ain't easy. Most of the time, his training his useless. It's too late. Even when he can more or less fix a half-dead patient, it's often only to dump him in a crowded-out emergency room. Frank's dispatched all over the place and has to see all kinds of horrors. ODs. Heart attacks. Botched suicides. Shootings. Always, death lurking.
In a way, Nicolas Cage's character is at the other end of the character he played in City in Angels, a film which was mostly overlooked but that deeply moved me. Cage played an angel who came and took souls when it was their time, and it didn't matter what doctors do to change what had to happen. Here, Cage's medic is right here on earth, and he tries to "bring out the dead", but it's somehow in vain because the other world has already sucked them in. Yet Frank keeps at it because of the rare but oh so precious times when his intervention does make a difference, when he grabs on to a person going the way of the angels and pulls her back. Then it's all worth it. It makes him feel like he's a divine being himself. Saving a life, he says, is like falling in love. It's the best drug, it makes you feel on top of the world for weeks. But when we meet him, Frank hasn't saved anyone for months, and it's tough. He feels he's losing it... He's falling from grace. The film follows him through a long, hellish week-end, as he wanders the streets, haunted by the people he lost...
"Bringing Out the Dead" is definitively not an easy film. It's art, dammit. It refuses to stay in bounds, to follow the three act structure and make it all soft and sweet and unambiguous. Thank God! It's an exploration of a world where self-destruction is a way of life, where death of the body is barely a continuation of the slow decay of spirits. Dysfunctional families, abusive relations, poverty, name it, it puts you in a place where drugs, crime or self-mutilation become appealing. Hence, it's an even greater challenge for a guy like Frank Pierce to help people who aren't even helping themselves. Frank's problem might be that his conception of Good is so great and beautiful that he can only be bitter and troubled when faced with the reality of things. Yet hope remains, and that's what the film is all about. Even in the worse of times, humanity remains. Well, like animals actually, humans are able to adapt to difficult situations. It's the only way to survive. Travis Bickle couldn't take it, look where it led him. On a more practical level, the way a lot of people cope these days is through carelessness, cynicism and so on. Just look at the various partners Frank sides up to through the week-end: Larry (John Goodman) is a bon vivant who finds joy in food and little pleasures, Marcus (Ving Rhames) venerates the Lord and women alike, often preaching more than he practices, and Tom (Tom Sizemore) who lets off the stress of the job by beating up street punks and banging in walls. Frank Pierce is still at a point where he has faith in humanity, and so he slowly awaits his redemption, which might come from an unlikely anti-romance with Mary (Patricia Arquette), the broken down, ex-junkie daughter of a heart-attack patient he picked up.
The film was adapted from a Joe Connelly book by none other than Paul Schrader, one of the most honest and challenging of all American screenwriters. But never has his words been translated to the silver screen with more soul and power than in the films he wrote for Martin Scorsese. We're talking about timeless masterpieces such as "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull", "The Last Temptation of Christ" and now "Bringing Out the Dead". These collaborations share an interest in the most somber corners of the human soul, but as harsh and violent as these films can get, they essentially take place on a psychological, spiritual level. It's just that violence and sex are our primary instincts. We're just evolved animals after all. But we do have a conscience that allows us to rise above these things, to somehow transcend them. That's what makes Frank's relation with Mary so special. If these two can achieve to connect, to find a common unspoken truth to quietly share... It's hard to put into words, but you get the idea. By the way, you probably know that Cage and Arquette are married in real life, so it's rather impressive how they make you forget their public image and just become people. Arquette sheds all of her usual luster and vampiness to show a more fragile, flawed woman. As for Cage... ah! He's just my favorite actor, and I like him in everything, but let's be objective for a sec. Some people aren't crazy about his wildly imaginative and enjoyable turns as offbeat action heroes. I mean, what's up with bonehead Sean Penn dissing him as a sellout? Well even those critics won't be able to deny that he's one of the best actors of his generations on behalf of his work under Scorsese. He returns to a more restrained quirkiness and delivers a very strong, hard to shake off performance, one of his very best.
Last but not least to contribute to the high quality of the film is Martin Scorsese, who stunned me with his direction. Everyone knows he's a legend, possibly the most brilliant contemporary American director, but what's amazing is that he can still surprise us. His latest shows his maturity and expertise, yet it also has the energy and fearlessness of a first film. The difference is that MTV or commercials whiz kids often do little more than cool shots in crappy films, while Scorsese crafts each shot the best it can be, but what he really has in mind is making a great film, not a few cool bits to edit in a trailer. There's many images that are unforgettable in "Bringing Out the Dead", but what really gives them their strength is the emotional core of the piece. And it's great cinematography, and it's tight editing, and it's the effective, gloomy score as well as the wonderful use of pop music to counterpoint the action. "Bringing Out the Dead" is a wrenching, masterful film that leaves you strangely moved. Not to be missed.