Bringing Out the Dead scarcely provides a day of rest for anyone. This dark, dark film prowls the wet, steamy streets of Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan. Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street, the once assertive citadel of the Irish ghetto in an earlier era, has been dwarfed by the Port Authority bus terminal across Eighth Avenue, and between its gaping ramps and the Hudson River, along approach roads to the Lincoln Tunnel, prostitutes and drug addicts rule the inferno. The wet, steamy asphalt seems to swallow light from headlights and shop windows. I can smell the damp, cracked sidewalks.
Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) belongs in this world. Raised in the neighborhood, he drives an ambulance on night shifts as a paramedic for the City’s Emergency Medical Service. Like that other child of the night, Travis Bickel (Robert DeNiro) in Scorsese’s "Taxi Driver" (1976), Frank teeters on the edge. For five years he has wandered through the night, picking up victims of gunshots and accidents, and more frequently of drugs and psychosis. His black-rimmed eyes stare nervously through the windows of his mobile abattoir, as he awaits the next call on his radio. Memories of near miraculous rescues in the past and hope that he will once again be able to save a life keep him going, but he is on a long losing streak. He drinks to get through the night. He continually hallucinates about Rose, the lovely young girl he lost some weeks ago.
Frank’s discovery of the limits of his humanity takes him on a three-day journey through rings of hell, each one explored with the help of a different guide. Each provides a rationale, a means of coping with this insane world, and Frank finds each inadequate.
On the first night, he travels with Larry (John Goodman), whose bulk next to Frank in the cab of the ambulance becomes overwhelming. Larry worries more about finding good pizza or Chinese takeout for his mid-shift lunch than about being arbiter of life and death for others. He takes the work as only a job, and in fact thinks of opening up his own emergency service out on Long Island, where the pay is better and he can make his own hours. Called to a cardiac arrest case, he complains about the stairs to the top floor, and after checking for vital signs, he readily declares the man dead. Frank needs more. He wants to restore life, and after energetic intervention, he succeeds. They bring the man to the emergency ward of Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy Hospital, which the drivers call simply "Misery." This bedlam could have been designed by Hieronymus Bosch, but at least the man is alive, and his daughter, Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette) is ambiguously grateful.
Frank next teams up with Marcus (Ving Rhames), a cigar-chomping realist, but a man of extraordinary contradictions. He waves a handful of bills to flirt with the prostitutes on Eleventh Avenue, but he enjoys the role of evangelical preacher as well. When the team intervenes in a drug overdose call at a motorcyclists’ in-spot, Marcus has the incredulous leather crowd hold hands and invoke the power of Jesus with the sing-song cadences of the tent-show revivalist. Such outward displays of religiositywhether genuine or faked as a kind of practical joke on the trendiesdismays Frank. He simply applies the needed medication and saves the young man’s life.
On the third night of his journey into his own soul, Frank rides with Walls (Tom Sizemore), who may be equally disturbed. He stays on the job because he enjoys the violence of his work. He tells Frank that he hopes for some gruesome trauma to provide a bit of excitement to enliven his night’s work. When they come across a deranged man, a familiar figure from the emergency room at Misery, Walls prefers to stop his potential violence by beating him senseless. Frank intervenes, tends to the man’s injuries and brings him back to the hospital for more effective treatment.
While rejecting the understandings of life in this mad universe that his three partners provide, Frank begins to find some opening toward sanity through his growing involvement with Mary Burke. He stops in to visit her in the hospital, and although his partners claim Frank never eats, he tries to provide food for her. The simple human gesture takes on eucharistic overtones, with the sharing of a meal providing more life-sustenance than the high-tech drugs he administers in his ambulance.
High-tech life support may in fact represent the antithesis of humanity. Mary’s father lingers near death, but her distraught mother refuses to sign the "do not resuscitate" order. As a result the doctors, much like Frank in his fantasies, willingly take over the role of God, referees of life and death with their machines and procedures. Mr. Burke remains in a coma, sustained only by his life-support systems, but whenever he lurches toward consciousness, he tries to remove them. When his heart stops, the doctors apply electric shocks with the defibrillator, 14 times in one day, and bring him back. He wants to die a natural death, but the doctors will not allow it. He has embraced mortality; they have not. He is mortal; they are God.
Mary likewise hovers between life and death. At one time, she tells Frank, her family thought she would be a nun, but she became a drug addict instead. Puzzled by Frank’s concern for her family, she asks bluntly if he wants to sleep with her. "Why not? Everybody else has," she adds. Gradually, she had begun to put her life together again, but the strain of her father’s illness has put terrible pressure on her. Her life could fall apart at any moment. Only Frank Pierce seems to care.
Redemption in Scorsese’s Catholic universe arises from just such a communion of wounded sinners. If they are to survive, Mary, the fallen Madonna, and Frank, pierced by the lance of his life, need each other. They inhabit a sinful world that grinds down such as they, but their recognition of a need for communion with one anotheragape, something more profound than either sex or romantic loveoffers the possibility of salvation. After many surprising twists in its story, which allow Frank to realize that he is not God and cannot continue to prolong the lives of those who would die, the film closes with a tender image of the Pietà. As two frail human beings embrace, the aperture of the camera slowly opens and for the first time floods this strikingly dark film with inexplicable and beatific light.
Paul Schrader, who also wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" (1980), created the script from the novel by Joe Connelly. He and Scorsese form a fascinating partnership. Schrader grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition and even studied in a Calvinist seminary, while Scorsese put in a year in a Catholic minor seminary. Schrader’s theological world does not pamper the fainthearted, and his scripts for Scorsese unflinchingly re-create a world corrupted by sin. While Schrader’s Calvinist words suggest a universe beyond redemption without extraordinary intervention, Scorsese’s Catholic images show sacred and sordid intermingled in the human condition. While the city streets teem with horrific victims and victimizers, Scorsese is still able to find a terrible beauty in the lights and shadows. While the police try to free a drug dealer impaled on a wrought iron fence, the sparks of their acetylene torches scatter into the night sky and blend with a lovely display of fireworks. For Scorsese’s camera, terror and beauty become one. With cinematographer Robert Richardson, he literally turns this world upside down and sideways, as though suggesting that one must fight off moral vertigo while making the journey through highly ambiguous and uncharted terrain.
This strange world comes to life through some splendid minor characters. Mary Beth Hurt, as the admitting nurse at Misery, routinely berates her familiar repeat patients, mostly derelicts, alcoholics and junkies, with the righteous rage of an exasperated but caring mother superior scolding an eight-year-old for defective homework. The rock singer Marc Anthony plays Noel, the dreadlocked maniac who has been terrorizing the emergency room and the neighborhood with his rages and hallucinations ever since a bullet rearranged his brain. Cliff Curtis makes Cy, the suave proprietor of a high-priced drug den, both chilling in his calculated evil and later frail in his vulnerability. Ironically it is Cy, the agent of death, who offers Frank the opportunity to rescue him and thus find a meaning in his own life.
"Bringing Out the Dead," like the earlier films of Martin Scorsese, cannot be dismissed as another violent urban melodrama. Like the others, it demands careful attention, and after the dizzying two-hour ambulance ride through Hell’s Kitchen, it invites thoughtful and sometimes disturbing reflection.
Richard A. Blake, S.J.