Bringing Out The Dead (1999)

Martin Scorsese directs Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette and John Goodman in this bleak black comedy where an insomniac NY paramedic can’t seem to save anyone over three traumatic shifts.

A swan song. The very last time Scorsese worked on this kinda claustrophobic urban character study scale. Everything over the last twenty years has been pointedly epic and sprawling. I guess The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street have the same satirical black heart. And Shutter Island is as self contained and geographically limited – but the intention there is very much grander and more baroque. Bringing Out The Dead feels like the last gasp of young punkish Marty who trapped us in his city, his religion, his paranoia, his addictions, his night. No one else harnesses the night like Scorsese – the moon under water becomes the neon lost in a dirty puddle. Mean Streets. Taxi Driver. After Hours. A character study, a working grind, an existential hell. I wonder if he and Paul Schrader ever have a light conversation? Make small talk?

The acting is pretty exciting. All of it coming at you in discordant speeds and volume. Cage is worn out, subdued… we don’t really see him this internalised that often. The Schrader written narration probably is a misstep. A part of the formula from previous successes that doesn’t need to be carried over in this instance. Patricia Arquette feels ethereally out of time with her Catholic schoolgirl look and whispered wails of dialogue. John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore bring the colour as Cage’s three alternating ambulance partners. Each one tramples over the lead’s neuroses and sanity with their big parasitic personalities. After being set up as such the agent of chaos in his brief appearances before the third act, it feels a shame we din’t get more of Sizemore’s violent psycho, Captain Tom. By that point the narrative is shaking loose its structure to do artier things. The background ensemble has people you’ve never logged doing fascinating work; Afemo Omilami, Mary Beth Hurt and early appearances from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn and Michael K. Williams. A pantomime of bad behaviour.

You could see it as raking over old ground… it was marketed somewhat bluntly as Taxi Driver in an ambulance… ER meets Catch-22. It works best as a very dark comedy. The second half has issues. Scorsese struggles to find anything new to say after a rush of setting up imagery and moods. He ends up repeating motifs until the movie just shuts down and dozes off. But that first hour now feels like a last hurrah. We are running red lights, popping meds and blasting Johnny Thunders. Scorsese might have matured but I haven’t. This is the cinema I want. I’d take the relentless and manic first half over a thousand Kunduns and Silences. You can’t put your arms around a memory!


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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