Death and despair in Hell’s Kitchen: Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead

There are ghosts on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, occupying the corners of dilapidated tenements, sprawled out on the sidewalks near-dead, or wandering aimlessly about. Some have asked for death, but most haven’t. These ghosts haunt the life of EMT Frank Pierce, benevolent soul “with the face of a priest,” who careens nightly through the thoroughfares of New York City in an adrenaline-fueled psychosis searching for the next life he can save.

Lately though, his calls have been dying on him, and Frank is unsure of himself. He desperately wants his boss to fire him, but even this is an impossible request. “Your city needs you,” he tells Frank, and sends him out once again. One eventful night, Frank stumbles upon a call at the Burke household. Mr. Burke has just suffered a heart attack and locked himself in the bathroom. When Frank finds him, he’s been dead for a few minutes, but he is nevertheless able to regain a pulse and deposit him at the ER.

From there, Frank begins an increasingly bizarre relationship with Mary Burke, the older man’s estranged daughter, who had shown up seemingly to witness her father’s death. While Mr. Burke lies in limbo, Mary and Frank begin to exorcise their demons over the course of the next three days, drifting at times numbly through the increasingly horrific circumstances of both of their lives, beset by the impending pull of death and the claustrophobic gloom of the underside of New York.

Such is Martin Scorsese’s newest offering, Bringing Out the Dead (based on the novel by Joe Connelly), in many ways a return to the sordid wet pavements and filthy eccentrics of his 1975 classic Taxi Driver. Bringing Out the Dead bears comparison to this masterwork on many levels, not the least of which is Scorsese’s return to his home turf. Scorsese understands how to shoot the city, how to pull the varnish off of it and reveal it for what it is: a bed of alienation and despair, ultimately tearing itself to pieces at the margins.

Where Taxi Driver mined this very alienation and twisted it into a knot in the character of Travis Bickle, Dead’s Frank Pierce is neither an agent of doom nor a lonely and pathetic waif. This movie’s thrust is in odd, even vaguely Heideggerian directions with respect to death. As Pierce explores his role in society, he begins to lose touch with whatever purpose he might have. Why do the ones who want to die always end up living, while the ones who want to live end up dying? This is a central theme to Bringing Out the Dead, and it’s a hefty one.

Unfortunately for this film, the very energy that might have made for an exciting and visceral experience ultimately provides too much ballast; the constant alternation between languorous conversation and the frenetic tearing through city streets only highlights the utter aimlessness of the entire project, which remains oddly hollow and unfocused.

The plot moves forward only incrementally, as Pierce (Nicholas Cage) stumbles from one epiphany to another, cut intermittently with odd scenes of surreal hallucinations. He sees himself less as a savior and more as a witness to the death and despair that surrounds and smothers him. He and his increasingly eccentric fellow EMT’s circle the accidents and cardiac arrests of the city like vultures, looking for “blood.”

They get off on the excitement and pace of the work, but are left drained by the seeming futility of it all. Frank is haunted constantly throughout the film by the face of a young woman named Rose who had died on him some time before; her face appears superimposed on various pedestrians and bystanders, berating him for letting her die.

It’s this very recurrence that begins to wear away at Frank, chipping gradually away at his sanity, leaving him listless and disembodied. He begins to feel like an intruder in the death of others, like he for some reason just doesn’t belong there. He bears witness, but his very presence is ironically intrusive. It’s never his death, but whose death is it really? Does he deserve to take it away?

What you find in Bringing Out the Dead is a difficult, unsettling film that will probably stick in your throat. It left me oddly cold, though, and not simply because of the subject matter. What is lacking is the overarching thread and swagger that made Goodfellas such a brilliant piece of work. The soundtrack, peppered with performances from everyone from Van Morrison to R.E.M and 10,000 Maniacs, makes little or no sense.

Cage plays his role like a catatonic hulk, sporadically bursting out with vicious glee (Al Pacino is good at this sort of thing, actually). At times, though, this film works less like a Scorsese product and more like Cage’s character from Leaving Las Vegas, Ben Sanderson, wandering off the set into Mother, Jugs and Speed after it’s been violated by Natural Born Killers.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Oliver Stone had produced something as ponderous as this, but it’s odd that Scorsese would venture into this territory. That having been said, there are good things about Bringing Out the Dead. Patricia Arquette (Cage’s real life spouse) is uniquely good in the role of Mary Burke; she appears early in the film dressed rather primly, only to reveal her character throughout as quite the opposite. To hint at the turmoil that is hidden underneath her ordered veneer is no small feat. She plays it well.

The relationship between Frank and Mary is based primarily on desperation and pain; in fact it’s almost parasitic. Rather than ending up being romantic, it’s clawing and clumsy. It’s actually rather refreshing to see it portrayed this way, something Scorsese’s always been strong at. The situations and characters are bizarre and muddled, but somehow more real than what you find in a Cameron Crowe movie. They scrape the bottom, yet emerge in their despair as almost heroic.

What you’re ultimately left with in this film is a sequence of oftentimes thrilling, but inconsequential vignettes that are thoughtful, but unconvincing over the course of an entire film. It makes for arduous viewing.