Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.18: Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 69/B

Bringing Out the Dead is a curious entry in Martin Scorsese’s filmography. It’s the most recent collaboration between him and writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ), but it wasn’t half as successful as their earlier films (it flopped at the box office). It has a harrowing look at the seedier side of New York like Taxi Driver, but it also has a darkly comic outlook like After Hours. It’s well-respected and even loved by some Scorsese fans, but it’s rarely cited as one of his best. Still, Bringing Out the Dead is still vital, fascinating work from Scorsese, even if it comes up a little short.

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a night shift paramedic, and the work’s really getting to him. He’s constantly surrounded by death or the near-dead, he’s bothered by frequent hospital patients like drug addict Noel (Marc Anthony), and he’s haunted by the ghosts of those he’s lost. Over the course of three nights, Frank goes out into the night with good-natured Larry (John Goodman), deeply religious Marcus (Ving Rhames), and volatile former partner Tom (Tom Sizemore). Frank sees a chance to save himself in Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a heart-attack victim who’s currently languishing on life support.

If nothing else, Bringing Out the Dead is as formally rigorous and adventurous as any of Scorsese’s other films. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson shoot the film as if they’re taking a bright light to the darkest corners of New York City, but the brightness could be heavenly or hellish. In an early scene where Frank saves Mary’s father, the light is more welcoming, and it’s unnerving when Frank brings him back when he’s a spirit that’s ready to go. In other scenes, the light seems to beat down Cage and his fellow workers, as if it won’t let them sleep no matter how exhausted they are. Scorsese’s frequent editor Thelma Schoonmaker, meanwhile, shoots for sensory overload, using the packed frames and vibrant punk rock milieu as an excuse to bring many of the film’s episodes to an unnerving kinetic rush.

The film is at its best when focusing on either the dark comedy misadventures with Goodman and Rhames (Sizemore overplays his part) or the greatest horrors of it. Goodman is great as a man who focuses on what his next meal is as a way to get his mind off of the job, both in its irritating parts (transporting a chronic drunk) and its horrifying ones (going to a crackhouse to perform an impromptu baby delivery). Rhames is even better as a religious man who seems to view himself as a modern day prophet with the ability to resurrect anyone – his reaction to the punk kid he saves is particularly funny (“What kind of a name is ‘I-Be-Bangin’?”). There’s also a great bit of catch-22 when Frank, who’s desperately trying to get out of the job any way he can, comes in late again, only to have his boss promise to fire him tomorrow…again.

Regarding the horror, that bit with Cage and Goodman at the crackhouse is lit like a horror movie, all shadows and uncertainty, but the film is even better in a pair of dynamite set-pieces. In the first, Frank takes a pill from Curtis’s pusher, only to have a nightmarish hallucination in which he relives the death of a woman he failed to save. The scene is notable for its wide-angle lenses, distorted soundtrack, and, in a striking editing trick reminiscent of the ending of Carrie, the scene was shot in reverse, and the reverse falling snow and oddness to the movement only makes it more unsettling.

Later, Frank has to save Curtis’s character after the cops raid his place and, trying to escape, he falls and is impaled on an iron railing. The scene is tense, as Frank and the cops have to save the man by cutting through the rail and holding on so he doesn’t fall to his death, but the scene also has a sly sense of humor as Curtis sees the absurdity of his situation (on the blowtorch cutting through: “Damn, that’s hot!”).

Scorsese has a lot of great stuff going on in the margins as well: a great soundtrack filled with blues and punk numbers; a pair of sardonic dispatchers (played by Queen Latifah and Scorsese himself); Mary Beth Hurt as a nurse who sees the hospital regulars as irritations; a charismatic Cliff Curtis as Arquette’s former drug dealer.

It’s a great world to get lost in, but if it sounds like a bunch of episodes without a solid through line, ding ding ding. Scorsese is possibly the finest narrative filmmaker who ever lived, but at this point in time he said he was a bit tired of narrative films. Kundun saw him branching out with a film not focused on narrative, with mixed results. Bringing Out the Dead comes a bit closer to Scorsese’s usual wheelhouse,  but he seems more invested in the dark comedy and horror than he is in the actual drama of Frank’s situation. The narration in Schrader’s script feels a bit too studied compared to Taxi Driver, as if it’s aping the earlier film.

Cage, for his part, is fine, if a bit too subdued at the dramatic moments, but the film is vibrant when dealing with his restlessness and less so when showing why he’s so tortured by his situation. It’s not as if it isn’t an interesting story – the idea that a man takes the people he couldn’t save to heart and lets it tear him apart, and that he’s trapped in his situation – but it comes off as a bit rote. The tonal shifts between absurdist comedy and anguish are jarring, made more so by how episodic the film is.

It’s not helped by a dull performance by Arquette in a relationship that never really convinces. For every great scene of Frank and the paramedics (my next band name) running around and dealing with the insanity of the city, there’s the punctuation of Cage having a very serious conversation with a fellow lost soul. It’s problematic because Arquette’s character is never treated as a person so much as she’s a figure, a chance for redemption. With that dead weight relationship as the central thread to the film, it can’t help but feel a bit uneven. Still, it’s often fascinating, and it’s not as if the world couldn’t use another good Scorsese movie.

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