Bringing Out the Dead is so similar to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, so blatantly a spiritual successor, that the two should be required viewing as a double bill. Replacing Travis Bickle, the volatile, traumatized war veteran cab driver is Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage), a third shift paramedic racing down the same streets that Bickle prowled after hours in his taxi. Frank is haunted, much like Bickle, but here it isn’t the city’s “filth” and debauchery that drives him, and the ghosts are much more real. As many parallels as the two films have, it is here where Bringing Out the Dead diverges, as if it is trapped between the Paul Schrader-Scorsese (Schrader co-wrote Dead as well as Driver), and spiritually fueled Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and now Silence).
In fact, Bringing Out the Dead is probably Scorsese’s most super-natural picture. Even more plotless and character focused than Taxi Driver, Dead follows Frank as he fights for his own sanity, fights himself, and fights for redemption for all the lives he has failed to save during his time as a paramedic. The film takes place almost entirely at night, the settings shifting from hazy, rain-covered streets to a hellish (yet bustling with life) Emergency Room, to nearly abandoned buildings doubling as crack-houses, with rooms laced with velvety red walls home to a drug-pushing businessman who promises rest for the suffering. It is as if all of Bringing Out the Dead takes place in a New York-purgatory, with most characters hovering somewhere between life or death. What better way to manifest this theme physically than the location of the back of an ambulance, or the ER, with the tormented Frank serving either as the “grief mop” (as he puts it in voiceover) or frantic savior, working, seemingly, to save the lives and souls of those under his care (it is telling that most of Frank’s “patients” are suffering emotionally and spiritually somehow as well as physically).
This theme is evidenced by Ving Rhames’ character (equally strung out by his job, but deals with it in different, no less self-harming ways than Frank) spontaneously busting out a hilarious prayer to Jesus as he and Frank try to save a drug addict who has overdosed. Frank’s own self-penance, his own self-punishment and need to “save” (physically and spiritually) his patients is manifested most powerfully in one of the strangest, and strongest, Scorsese scenes ever filmed, in which Frank finally heeds the “wishes” (he hears the man’s pleas in his head) of a patient who he believes wishes to finally die after days of painful struggle. In order not to alert the ER staff, Frank removes the man’s breathing mask and places it over his own head, the hulking tube and device pulsating unnaturally along with him, and he sits quietly in the room next to the dying man, basked in sickly green light. It is one of the most powerful, frightening, and moving images in Scorsese’s entire oeuvre.
Understandably, Frank is strung-out, and Scorsese allows viewers glimpses of Cage’s more unhinged tendencies, but never so much that he loses credibility as our protagonist, and it’s never as easy as simple insanity. In fact, Cage’s performance is uncharacteristically subdued, exhausted, bags hanging under his eyes that keep seeing the ghost of the one patient who continues to haunt him. Frank desperately wants out (a few funny scenes see him plead to be fired, but the short-handed boss politely refuses), but it’s as if quitting will forfeit and damn his soul. All of this is in Cage’s performance, and Scorsese’s close-ups.
Although not a superior film, Bringing Out the Dead is certainly more surreal and nightmarish, than Taxi Driver. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (whose work here is perhaps the best of the decade) often utilizes intense overhead lighting; characters are often bathed in hot fluorescent white light, so that they almost glow, ghostly, heavenly, in these hellish places of violence and death and vice. Frank’s quest for redemption is powerful, his job a self-imposed penance, and Scorsese inimitably captures this struggle in purgatory, interrogating the themes of death, life (both emotional and physical) in a wholly unique way. One of the director’s best.