As with Taxi Driver (1976), screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese collaborated on the 1999 film Bringing Out The Dead. Similarly to Taxi Driver, Bringing Out The Dead follows its male lead as he works the graveyard shift at an unruly job that brings him into contact with the less desirable and criminal element of New York City. Thematically, Bringing Out The Dead differs from Taxi Driver in that the story of the main character is one of redemption rather than ironic heroism.
The narrative of Bringing Out The Dead, adapted from a novel of the same name by Joe Connelly, follows EMT Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) through 72 hours of his life. At the start of the film Frank rescues a man suffering from a heart attack, and befriends that man’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette). The majority of the film deals with Frank’s inability to cope with the “ghosts” of those he was unable to save, particularly a young girl named Rose. In the 72 hours over which the film takes place, every emergency call better equips Frank to finally forgive himself for being unable to save Rose’s life. What Frank learns is that to save someone does not mean to physically keep them alive, that some people prefer death. Frank’s enlightenment prompts him to unplug Mary’s father from life support, killing him.
What the audience learns of Frank’s internal struggle is conveyed almost exclusively in voice over monologue, a device perfected in this manner by Scorsese and Schrader in Taxi Driver. Bringing Out The Dead marks an innovation in the implementing of this device by including illustrative images to couple Frank’s voice over. For instance, when Frank’s voice over mentions the “ghosts” their faces materialize on passers by who appeared differently moments ago. This effect coupled with psychologically reflective lighting scenarios make Bringing Out The Dead far more expressionistic than Taxi Driver.
Reinforcing the expressionistic tendencies of Bringing Out The Dead is the inclusion of a drugged out fantasy sequence that takes place entirely in Frank’s mind. This sequence utilizes fast motion, slow motion, green screen, cross-over dissolves, super imposition and a slew of other more subtle effects to visually represent Frank’s subconscious struggle. Though each of the parts that make Bringing Out The Dead expressionistic are not on their own unique or referential to any particular stylistic tendency, the sum of these parts demand the consideration of expressionism in Bringing Out The Dead.
Despite the fanaticism of Bringing Out The Dead, no matter how carefully Scorsese disguises it with his trademark gritty realism, Schrader’s script and the final film are of a decidedly formal quality. Consider that each act of the film is marked by a new partner for Frank to go out on call with. Each of Frank’s partner’s is representative of a particular quality that Frank must conquer or come to terms within him. The first of these partners is Larry (John Goodman), who advocates a certain level of ignorance to separate his home life with his family from the hostile environment of his work place. Secondly is Marcus (Ving Rhames), who represents a renewed faith and a trust in a higher power. Finally, there is the violent man of action Tom (Tom Sizemore), who appears to have forsaken both faith and family values to join the anarchistic world that he patrols every night.
Each of Frank’s partner’s spiritual or moral choices is rejected by Frank. Frank is too compassionate to revel in the mayhem like Tom, too skeptical to turn to Jesus as Marcus did, and too alone to find any structure in a family as Larry had. What Frank ultimately does is accept the conditions of his life. Upon close analysis, the thing that all of Frank’s partners have in common is their desire to escape, the same desire that Frank possesses at the start of the film. However, Frank cannot find redemption in escaping the cruelty of life, but only in confronting it. Frank has to acknowledge that his job does not always put him on the side of his patients, that at times what his patients wish flies in the face of what his job requires him to do.
The spiritual crisis at the heart of Bringing Out The Dead and Taxi Driver are remarkably similar. Yet, some twenty years after Taxi Driver, the resolution of this conflict or crisis appears to be much more hopeful. Part of this hopefulness is a by-product of the fantasy element inherent in expressionism; the other is in the lack of Frank’s moral ambiguity. Taxi Driver’s Travis (Robert DeNiro) always appeared equally threatening and compassionate no matter what his physical actions were, thus rendering him ambiguous. Frank on the other hand is good throughout. Whenever he is tempted to stray, Frank returns to his course adhering to his own moral code. Where actual characters are concerned, Frank is much more similar to Willem DaFoe’s Jesus Christ in Schrader and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) than he is to Travis Bickle. In the visual arena, Bringing Out The Dead’s last shot is of Mary holding Frank as he sleeps (Arquette and Cage were married at the time). This simple image is indicative of the Hollywood cliché’ “boy gets girl” but also recreates the image of Mary cradling Christ’s dead body after the crucifixion. This not only reinforces the similarity of Frank’s character to Jesus Christ (in the Scorsese film), but also suggests some sort of eminent rebirth.
Putting Bringing Out The Dead in the context of Martin Scorsese’s entire career it soon becomes evident that his films are rarely as hopeful as this, particularly when examining his films based in New York. The clearly pointed moral structure of Bringing Out The Dead in and of itself is evidence of a new direction in the work of Scorsese. Prior films dealt with moral ambiguity or disillusionment of one sort or another. Perhaps the pointedness of Bringing Out The Dead’s moral message isn’t a product of Scorsese at all, but of Paul Schrader. This hypothesis seems much more likely since Schrader’s films as a director each exhibit a clear and decided moral stance.
Regardless of which author of the film is responsible for what aspect of the film, Bringing Out The Dead remains, in my mind, Scorsese’s last truly innovative piece of movie making. Thinking of his more recent films like Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed or Shutter Island, I recall only pomposity coupled with monotony. These seem to be the symptoms of popular cinema today, so it’s nice to escape back to when filmmakers like Martin Scorsese were still compelling.