Bringing Out the Dead" will bring pleasure to the followers of Martin Scorsese's always interesting career. Not one of his major works, Scorsese's 27th movie still represents a significant addition to the director's prodigious canon, a series of experiments, homages and subtle references that add up to a glorious viewing experience if not a completely satisfying narrative.
Joe Connelly's novel, "Bringing Out the Dead," was adapted for the screen by Paul Schrader, who last worked with Scorsese on the epochal "Taxi Driver." Fans will find a lot to compare between the two movies, which both feature roaming protagonists in crisis over the world they see out their car windows. Similarly driven by a bristling soundtrack, and set in a New York City that is refracted through bits of neon glimpsed through rear-view mirrors, "Bringing Out the Dead" introduces another avenging angel to the screen, this time in the form of a burned-out paramedic. (Like "Taxi Driver," this film features a clever cameo by the director, who has considerably slowed down his delivery to play an unseen dispatcher.)
Alas, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is no Travis Bickle, the Mohawked shaman of brute force that Robert De Niro immortalized in the earlier film. Cage's haunted, pale Modigliani profile is perfect for Frank's more brooding moments, but when he speaks he seems to play at two speeds, slow and maniacal. Treading through the episodic paces of this grim story, he fails to build the sense of exquisite tension that made "Taxi Driver" such a compelling odyssey in existential horror.
At first glance it's difficult to tell who, aside from Scorsese's admirers, would want to see a movie that traces a long, hot summer weekend in New York's grittiest and bloodiest emergency rooms (the film is pointedly set in the early 1990s, before Rudolph Giuliani and Disney set out to sterilize the city). Things go from grim to grimmer in a world where doctors are less likely to make noble speeches than refer to their cherished patients as "plant food."
Indeed, Frank's journey, which takes place over a long summer weekend of full moons in the tough neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, is thoroughly Dickensian in its depiction of the city's dankest quarters and most desperate citizens. All of the patients he picks up seem to have given up on living, whether they are a man in cardiac arrest (who comes to represent Frank's chance to save a life after a long and maddening dry spell), a musician who has overdosed or a drug dealer who's been shot. Even a potentially uplifting birth scene ends on a down beat.
All of this pain is driving Frank to distraction, and he keeps trying to convince his captain that he should be fired. But what he doesn't realize is that compared with his colleagues (portrayed by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore with gallows humor and blood lust), he's the sane one, even when he's plagued by a recurring vision of a young woman he failed to save (these flashbacks are the movie's most unsuccessful conceit). A budding liaison with a patient's daughter (Patricia Arquette in a good performance) results in a trip down another rabbit hole, in case reality wasn't surreal enough.
The plot of "Bringing Out the Dead" is less interesting than the world Scorsese creates out of it, a world whose most disquieting elements are somehow conveyed in starkly beautiful images. A white horse, walking dreamily through a tunnel full of homeless men, a flooded hallway where a pool of blood floats like a skim of red oil, a wildly improbable fireworks show that results when a drug dealer is rescued from a balcony where he's been impaled -- these are just a few of the myriad visions that give "Bringing Out the Dead" its hypnotic power, even when the story seems to drag from one violent vignette to another.
The film also represents a fascinating chapter in Scorsese's full and rewarding history with collaborations, both old and relatively new. His longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, is in characteristically fine form here, moving the film along with judgment and taste rather than flashy gimmicks. The cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked with the director only once before, on the disappointing "Casino," is at the top of his game, filming Manhattan with a camera muscular enough to turn its Cartesian grid on its more irrational ear.
But "Bringing Out the Dead" benefits most from composer Elmer Bernstein, whose soaring musical score provides such an improbably suitable balance to Van Morrison's scorching rendition of "T.B. Sheets" that propels most of the movie. Whereas much of the hit-heavy soundtrack gives the movie a distracting topicality, Bernstein's lush scoring gives it an epic gravitas that places it with the urban social dramas of the 1950s (with a whiff of the classically poisonous New York valentine "Sweet Smell of Success").
Filled with so much heartbreaking beauty, "Bringing Out the Dead" might be best described as an artist's sketchbook, a series of tableaux and ideas that provide a telling glimpse of a director whose work is always evolving. Leave it to Scorsese to turn flimsy core material and an uneven central performance into a celebration of film at its most poetically expressive.
'Bringing Out the Dead'
Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Marc Anthony, Ving Rhames
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Rated R (gritty violent content, drug use and language)
Running time 121 minutes
Released by Paramount Pictures
Sun score ***