Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

In many ways, this feels as much like an Abel Ferrara movie as a Martin Scorsese-Paul Schrader picture. An account of the maddening life of a paramedic in New York in the early 90s (ie: pre-Giuliani), it stretches over three long nights as Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) gets nearer the edge, haunted by visions of one girl he failed to save (out of many), propelled by adrenaline, coffee, booze and the odd drug. Partnered by three increasingly crazed teammates (semi-laid-back John Goodman, Bible-thumping Ving Rhames, sociopathic Tom Sizemore), Frank is continually hauled into two intertwining cases: a man on life support seems to want to die while his daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) loiters about unsure of what to do, and a brain-damaged street person (Marc Antony) is beyond help because he is so irritating that medical staff and other patients are driven to make attempts on his life or turn him loose.

It's the familiar tale of a descent into Hell, and the ambiguous redemption found there - Frank finally helps Mary's father die and is able at last to sleep in the girl's arms as a golden light (dawn) surrounds them. However, the horrors are more convincing than the epiphanies: Frank's vision of ghosts rising from the streets to torment him, a drug-dealer impaled on a railing after a fall from his balcony, Sizemore's habit of battering already injured patients before bringing them in. There's a MASH-like streak of gruesome medical comedy, as the partner of a teenager giving birth in a tenement whines 'but we're virgins' and is only happy when he convinces himself that the twins (one dead) are a 'miracle' or Rhames convinces the friends of an overdose victim that prayer has brought him back to life rather than a covertly administered injection.

There are wonderfully wry cameos at the hospital, especially from Mary Beth Hurt as the admissions nurse who constantly lectures drug and alcohol casualties about why they ought not receive treatment for self-inflicted illnesses. Though there are visual as well as thematic echoes of Taxi Driver in the NYC sleaze and neon-lit fog, Scorsese is here not only imitating himself but taking on the looser, hallucinogenic elements of Oliver Stone's NBK style or even, as said above, copping licks from Ferrara, who might well have made a more extreme, nightmarish film of the material. Though Cage is excellent (and has never looked more unhealthy), there's a sense that his wilder character traits have all been externalised in his partners, which leaves him mostly a safe centre. Nevertheless, effortlessly outstanding, and easier to relate to than Kundun. There's a sense that Scorsese, unquestionably the best living filmmaker, has had such midget-like competition that he hasn't had to stretch or prove himself in a while.

First published in this form here.

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