Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a burned-out paramedic working New York City’s graveyard shift. He is haunted by visions of a patient he failed to save, and despite his pleas his supervisor refuses to fire him. Over a series of nights, Frank’s experiences push him closer to the edge, but also connect him with Mary (Patricia Arquette) – the troubled daughter of a heart attack victim he has taken to hospital.
In 1999 director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader returned to the streets of New York, the site of their legendary 1976 film Taxi Driver with Bringing Out the Dead, a visceral and energetic film adaptation of the Joe Connelly novel. It was a box office failure, but gained positive critical reviews. These days it seems to sit somewhere in the back row of Scorsese’s filmography, comparatively obscure and half-forgotten by viewers and critics. That strikes me as a deep shame, because in terms of style it seems a fairly distinctive and original work for the director.
It also boasts a tremendous lead performance by Nicolas Cage, who is a brilliant actor when he is given the material with which to work. Bringing Out the Dead catches Cage in a period of transition, shifting away from his more interesting independent films and towards the sorts of high-budget Hollywood tentpoles typified by The Rock (1996), Face/Off and Con Air (both 1997). He is deeply compelling as Frank, a paramedic who is well on the way to having a complete emotional breakdown. He is strung-out and twitchy. He is neglecting his work. He has panic attacks at the thought of going on an emergency call. He is genuinely having hallucinations each night. Rightly or wrongly Frank latches onto the first flash of brightness that he sees, which in this case is Mary – the estranged daughter of a dying man whose wife (Mary’s mother) refuses to let slip away. Cage’s performance feels vivid and raw. Certainly the screenplay feels tailored to his strengths, which has always been a kind of manic and over-the-top sort of acting, but it is in the smaller, more quiet moments that he really seems to excel. It is arguable that Bringing Out the Dead represents Cage’s last truly outstanding performance, with only Adaptation (2002) really standing out among his subsequent films.
The supporting cast is very strong, although Martin Scorsese has never had difficulty attracting talent. Patricia Arquette does a wonderfully vulnerable and wounded sort of performance as Mary. John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom SIzemore each deliver distinctive and entertaining variations on Frank’s night-time partners. A real stand-out is Cliff Curtis as drug dealer Cy Coates. This was his first significant Hollywood role following a few films playing pirates, mercenaries and an Iraqi soldier, and he grabs the opportunity with vigour and turns Cy into a weirdly sympathetic and hugely watchable character.
Scorsese represents the mania of Frank’s late night call-outs with a combination of flashing lights, sharp cuts and sped-up footage. It all feels like one step away from total visual chaos, yet he keeps a strong grip on proceedings throughout. By the film’s conclusion it really does feel as if the viewer has accompanied Frank on a journey, despite the slightly open-ended and vaguely uneasy manner in which it ends. There is no denying Scorsese is one of American cinema’s most astonishing directors, but I honestly think it is high time Bringing Out the Dead was revisited and given another chance. It deserves a much larger audience than it ever received.