Martin Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing out the Dead is an adaptation of Joe Connelly’s excellent novel of the same name (the title actually comes from, as you might think, from the infamous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), which is actually based on his own experiences as an EMT in New York City, and tells the story of Frank, a burnt-out paramedic working the graveyard shift in Hell’s Kitchen who starts to see hallucinations/ghosts of his dead patients, namely Rose, a young woman who overdosed that he couldn’t save. Nicolas Cage stars, but he is unusually restrained for the most part here, and it’s one of his best films in my opinion, alongside some of his other less over-the-top roles such as Leaving Las Vegas, Joe, Raising Arizona, and Red Rock West, to name a few. But he’s great for the role – he really wanted to work with Marty, and Marty thought of him instantly when he read Connelly’s book. I devoured the book in a few days, and its themes of grief, overcoming trauma, healing, and rumination on why we cared about others really stayed with me. In addition, Frank’s philosophical and existential musings were very inspiring. I couldn’t unhear Nicolas Cage as I read the book, and that’s a good thing, although part of me kind of wishes I had read the book beforehand.
The film is set during two days in New York City as Frank works as a paramedic, contemplates quitting his job (in a very memorable scene, he tries to quit and his boss won’t let him, which I think is symptomatic and critical of perhaps working as an EMT in a metropolitan city), and rides with a medley of other EMTs including Ving Rhames (who takes on a quasi-religious role in his job), John Goodman (reunited since Raising Arizona), and Tom Sizemore. Sizemore’s character, who is also named Tom, struck me the most, and his Islamophobic slur later in the film, his disillusionment and distrust of the government and society, and his quasi-conspiracy theories really seem to represent and evidence the early seeds for Trumpism. The film also brilliantly recreates a pre-9/11 New York City – there’s a lingering sense of restlessness, aimlessness, a stasis that feels quite ominous, like something is about to happen, but not sure yet. Thankfully Bringing out the Dead is anything but aimless, and I think it’s a beautiful and very meaningful reflection on overcoming trauma and wife. He is alcoholic and a workaholic, and he lives with the grief of his wife having left him as well as his inability to save his latest patients. Rose’s ghost is a metaphor for this enduring trauma that haunts him, a physical reminder of not only his inability to help someone, which is the core value of his job to him and what he perceives as his own personal failure (“Inadequacies and foreign bodies” as Van Morrison sings in “T.B. Sheets,” which Marty brilliantly uses as a crucial and very telling theme song through the film), but also his burn out, the fact that he has crossed so many personal mental (and physical) boundaries and limitations with his job that he is seeing ghosts and hallucinations. He is also haunted by his latest patient Mr Burke, who suffers cardiac arrest at the beginning and remains on oxygen through most of the rest of the film. He befriends his attractive yet troubled daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette, who was actually Cage’s wife at the time, and their chemistry is genuine and really suits the film), and through her, he meets a whole cast of characters, including drug dealer Cy and Noel (Marc Anthony), a brain-damaged addict. All of this leads to Frank’s own personal salvation and renewed sense of purpose and belonging. He learns to save again, but not just someone else but himself. Mary is shown interchangeably with Rose too, and despite their mutual trauma, they form a relationship and have a promising future. I understood his mercy killing of Mr Burke at the end, but I have a complex view of it – does he kill him to just help himself move on, or does he do it to actually relieve the family? After all, despite Mr Burke’s voice in Frank’s ear, which is most likely delusional, the family wanted to keep him alive, so the mercy killing goes against this and might just serve to validate himself, although I like to think that Marty and Joe Connelly had a greater meaning and intention behind it. But there is a definite catharsis in his conclusiveness with Rose’s ghost (saving Cy after he is impaled after a botched drug deal and bonding with Mary), and now Frank can move on from his workaholic lifestyle and find new meaning elsewhere.
The acting across the board here is great for the most part, particularly from the character roles. I didn’t like Arquette’s acting in this one, but her chemistry with Cage is excellent, and Marc Anthony is great as Noel. Scorsese uses incredible lighting and contrast here to give the film a feel of endless night/work/emergencies, and it draws us into Frank’s mindset and the restlessness of the EMT lifestyle. That sense of duty tends to blur with the burn out of the endless needs of the job, but in the dead of night and through its repetitions (much like “T.B. Sheets”), Frank finds his most invaluable philosophical meaning and reflections upon the world (e.g. “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?”). As with most Marty films, the soundtrack is excellent too, and Van Morrison and The Clash are used to very meaningful non-diegetic ends, particularly lyrically (you feel the music of “Janie Jones,” for instance, as Tom and Frank drive chaotically into the night, warping to lightspeed). There’s a strong sense of familiarity and yet total unfamiliarity in the film, and this is intentional. We feel like we know New York or have always known it, even if we’ve never been there, yet there’s a latent darkness or danger that remains unstoppable. Maybe that is Death itself. Some folks say that it is a spiritual successor to Taxi Driver, which Scorsese also directed. I can see the parallels, particularly their focus on these troubled minds building up like pressure cookers over time, but I think Frank and Travis are very different men whose lives lead to very different outcomes (I think Travis’ salvation comes with killing Sport and the johns and lowlifes so that Iris can lead a new life). Travis’ rejection from love and displacement in society leads him to kill in a terrific climax, and he justifies this as a means to save Iris from prostitution/child abuse, whereas Frank’s rejection from love and displacement in society leads him to save others and himself.
Bringing out the Dead is one of my favourite Scorsese films, and a bit of a buried gem that for some reason, didn’t quite get all of the love and accolades it deserved when it came out (also a fun fact: it was one of the last films released on LaserDisc). But it is excellent and deserves to be seen. Cage is perfect as Frank, he has that world weariness to him and he really embodies who Frank is without being over the top. It’s a refreshing role for Cage, as high energy as he usually is (“Not the bees!”). I watched it again recently and I loved it even more, perhaps with the knowledge of the book and 9/11 and the horrors and lived experience of Trumpism in mind. I hope that more folks will seek out this movie and also find meaning and truth in the philosophical reflections and healing, overcoming trauma, and finding a sense of purpose presented in this film.