Repetition, depression, desperation, thirst. Those are the key motifs in Martin Scorsese’s lesser known picture Bringing Out the Dead, starring none other than Nicolas Cage (who is brilliant) as Frank: an alcoholic, insomniac ambulance paramedic. Haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, Frank spends most of his time staring vacantly out of his vehicle’s windows onto the streets of Manhattan, observing the many vagrants and prostitutes who populate the street corners like specters. Being called out to clean up the drunken and delusional homeless night after night, Frank feels the exhausting strain of having to experience the same disappointment on every shift. He desperately desires to be the hero, to save a life, to give life, to prolong life. And yet what he comes to realise through his numerous encounters with work partners (played by dynamic trio John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore), medical staff, patients and friends, is that death is not something to be hysterically and dramatically avoided. It is natural – inevitable – and Frank’s final, peaceful encounter with it is what finally releases him from the mental prison he has built himself.
Bringing Out the Dead is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes, as inventive and unconventional shots are matched with a kick-ass soundtrack that includes the likes of The Clash, Van Morrison, R.E.M, The Who, and UB40. An eclectic assortment of songs send shock-waves through otherwise introspective moments, such as the ambulance’s long drives down city roads where the street-lights blur at the sides of the screen, and reflections flicker on the windshield. An overdose of crazy illumination causes the mind to spin as you watch Frank becoming more and more overwhelmed by the nocturnal life he leads, living only by the glare of artificial light glimmering red, white, yellow and blue. Visually, the film is a beautiful headache, teasing you with calm only to then startle you with more fluorescent flashes.
I bought this film not knowing anything about its story, and I was shocked by how much it affected me. Initially, I wanted to give it three-and-a-half stars as I felt it was impactful but morbid, and so not easy to revisit, but thinking on it I have decided that it’s worth a solid four, as although it’s a hard watch, it’s a worthy one. A little long at just over (a minute over) two hours, the film can sometimes feel too intense, but that’s the point – as a viewer you’re meant to feel the weight and strain of Frank’s responsibilities and anxieties, and in a sense be on the graveyard shift with him. By the end you desire the daylight and a good sleep as much as he does.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★