“So open up the window and let me breathe.
I said open up the window, shh-shh-shh-shh-shh, and let me breathe.
I’m looking down to the street below, Lord, I cried for you,
Ha ha, I cried, I cried for you, ha ha. Oh, Lord.
The cool room Lord, is a fool’s room.
The cool room Lord, is a fool’s room.
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets
On your sick bed.”
Before a single image shows up onscreen in Bringing Out The Dead, the wails of emergency response sirens dominate the crisp New York air, like so many spectral howls at the witching hour. Fittingly; paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is haunted by his professional past. Next, a sudden revival-esque cacophony sounds off in the beginning notes of “T.B. Sheets,” Van Morrison’s bluesy confession in which he admits to not being able to bear being in the presence of his sick wife for a moment more. Within minutes of the film’s beginning, the parallel is clear: we meet our hero Frank at a point where he can no longer stand the heavy rigors of the first responder life. Frank, during one of his many narrations, sings a blues song of his own: “I had to concentrate to keep my mind from wandering off on these short trips. It was the neighborhood I grew up in, and the one I worked the most as a paramedic, and it held more ghosts per square foot than any other.”
Based on a novel by Joe Connelly, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead is one of the last great films to come spilling forth from the wild and dark cinematic womb of 1999— the same warped uterus that housed Fincher’s Fight Club, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. Overseas, the New French Extremity was germinating with Pola X, sprouting a weed infestation of ultraviolent, envelope-pushing films about, among other things, fear of the Other. Though Scorsese is an old-school director from the wave of independent easy riders and raging bulls that came up in the sixties and seventies—Altman, Malick, Coppola—he had no trouble adapting to the ever-expanding limits of technology and storytelling. The same year that audiences chose the red pill and unplugged from the Matrix, the Kundun director fired off a final shot from his 20th century body of work.
Paul Schrader handled the screenplay adaptation, continuing his here-and-there collaboration with Scorsese. It’s apparent; Pierce’s monologues take on a similar disillusioned sickness to a certain cabbie who yearns for a real rain to come and wash the scum from the streets. Though less explosive than Travis Bickle, Frank Pierce is still a ticking time bomb, searching for purpose and a little redemption if he can get it. Schrader’s beloved transcendental style aids him in creating a poignant observation of America’s unsung heroes that pulls no punches in its depravity, but nor does it glorify its most salacious elements. Less plot-driven and more Robotussin fugue-state, Pierce makes his way through a graveyard shift with a colorful assortment of characters and locations, each more godless than the last.
The first partner he teams up with is Larry, a perpetually hungry layabout played with the full-throated jolliness to be expected from John Goodman. Together, they handle drunks, shootings, and overdoses, their vehicle a pontoon sailing into its own heart of darkness. There’s no Colonel Kurtz waiting at the end, but Charlie haunts Pierce in the form of the people he couldn’t salvage from death in the past. Particularly persistent of these spectral visions is Rose, an asthmatic homeless teen he improperly intubated (she died quickly after) six months prior. Everywhere he goes, her solemn face appears over the people of New York, ever-judging, ever-watching. As the shift continues over three unforgiving nights, Frank’s mental state rapidly crumbles; he becomes overwhelmed with PTSD and the simple truth that he can’t save everyone:
“It was impossible to pass by a building that didn’t hold a ghost of something: the eyes of a corpse, the screams of a loved one. All bodies leave their mark. You cannot be near the newly dead without feeling it. I could handle that. What haunted me now was more savage: spirits born half-finished, homicides, suicides, overdoses. Accusing me of being there, witnessing a humiliation which they could never forget.”
Many of Frank’s voice over monologues confess to feelings of spiritual malaise: claustrophobia, anxiousness, a lack of safety, regret. It’s here that the soundtrack shines, amplifying these streams of consciousness through song: Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run,” The Clash’s “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.,” The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” a whiplash-inducing oscillation between genres, all connected by a sense of ever-receding safety in a strange land. It’s more than nifty needle-drops—it’s a playlist for a personal apocalypse.
Frank’s ambulance rig is its own little canoe riding along the River Styx, the hospitals each a little circle of Hell. Between the medical facilities of Misery and Bellevue, the wretched refuse that the Statue of Liberty welcomes mere miles away are all on display in a Boschian hellscape of hopelessness and chaos. Biblical imagery abounds: a loinclothed man carrying a crucifix at 2am, Madonna and child poses between medic and impaled drug dealer, an apocalyptic white horse to behold, and—the cherry on top—a virgin birth. Frank strikes an alliance of mutual fatigue with the daughter of a heart attack victim (that victim’s perpetual state of coma-induced limbo haunts him just as much as Rose does), played with glassy-eyed enthusiasm by Patricia Arquette. She’s no angel, a former junkie with a heart of gold who understands the outcasts of society because she, too, is one. Her name: Mary.
During the scenic tour along that River Styx, Frank’s ferrymen change. First the gluttonous Larry, then the righteous Marcus (Ving Rhames), and finally the loose cannon Tom (Tom Sizemore, matching the energy of the frantic distortions of The Clash at their earliest and most disillusioned), each a fabled archetype of their own. Marcus is a spiritual advisor of sorts, preaching the good word and even using an overdose and his partner’s Narcan treatment as a demonstration of the magnificent power of Jesus. Schrader leans fully into his own Calvinist upbringing in his shaping of Marcus, who is a hypocrite and a sinner, treating women as both toys to be played with (he taunts sex workers with cash in hand and harasses his dispatcher who is clearly not interested in him) and objects of reverence when they give birth. His best advice, though, can be applied to the pious and secular alike, “Everybody gonna go through a stretch where folks gonna die on you. Just don’t meditate on it.” Unfortunately, Frank does a lot of meditating on it.
Thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker’s explosive editing, Frank’s meditations take on a manic, adrenaline-fueled quality. This may be the former Army medic in me talking, but anyone who has ever pulled a graveyard shift in a stressful job is chillingly aware of the important stuff that you nearly sleepwalk through (trained to complete our tasks without a second thought), and the minutiae that destroys you if you dwell on it (the bloody shoe left on the floor by that kid you couldn’t save in time). Robert Richardson’s deftly-framed cinematography, at times exaggerated like films of the German Expressionists and at others eerily controlled and refusing to look away, frames Pierce’s oscillation between exhaustion and desperate rage with ease. A hallucinatory trip sequence has Frank fantasizing of pulling the lost souls from the streets of New York (as Dante wishes to rescue the damned from the frozen lake of Hades) before replaying Rose’s asthmatic incident that led to her regretful, preventable death. The snow is flying upwards, indicating that the entire scene is filmed in reverse, adding an uncanny texture to the trip. Soon after, it’s right back to the night shift and all of the Book of Revelations mayhem that comes along with it. Schoonmaker transitions between the moods so swiftly and jarringly that there’s not a moment to rest—we can smell the sick sheets, too.
The common complaint about Cage’s acting is that his unhinged rants have become almost a parody of themselves at this point, that he’s not really acting, that the cheese has already slid off his cracker long ago and directors are just turning the camera on and letting the tiger out of its cage. This sort of thing is wildly subjective; Stephen King’s biggest beef with Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining was that Jack Nicholson already had an air of sinister instability about him which, to the Shining’s author, stripped any believable, gradual volatility from Jack Torrance. But as with Nicholson, Cage’s balls-to-the-wall honesty lends itself to the role. For both protagonists, all work and no play did a real number on their psyches. Cage’s performance is restrained when it needs to be, and turns up to eleven at moments that underline his character’s loosening grip on reality (and nail the gallows humor that permeates a pitch-black script).
Bringing Out The Dead is open to infinite interpretation, and caught hell in its day because it raises questions and refuses to spoon-feed any answers. It got no Oscar nominations, the only Scorsese joint of the ’90s to do so. As such, it stands as one of the most undervalued films of the decade. When the sirens have all dissipated into the cityscape and the gurneys have been cleaned, Scorsese and Schrader’s tag-team masterpiece is a simple one: it’s bearing witness for a man who can smell the city’s t.b. sheets, and just wants someone to open up the window and let him breathe.
Bringing Out The Dead is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (US).