Martin Scorsese‘s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead came out in a sort of transitional point for the legendary filmmaker.
- It was five years removed from Casino, the last collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, until last year’s The Irishman)
- Two years after the little-seen film, Kundun
- Three years before Gangs of New York, which marked the first collaboration between him and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Bringing Out the Dead is a seldom seen and underappreciated Scorsese picture, one that started as a reunion between Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader that should have brought instant eyes and ears. Sadly though, the movie has faded into the white noise of Scorsese’s virtually unmatched Hollywood career.
It was a critical success but perhaps the less than stellar box office numbers sealed its fate (not that box office numbers can’t preclude it from becoming a classic). Regardless, it’s unclear how or why this movie faded.
Cinema fans would do wise to visit this overlooked Scorsese picture. Inside, they will find a film with dynamic filmmaking, absorbing character work and a standout performance from Nicholas Cage.
Guilt and Redemption
“No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.”Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage)
This saw the first collaboration between Martin Scorsese and writer/director Paul Schrader (seen below) since 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. These two were regarded collaborators coming together for 1980’s Raging Bull and most famously 1976’s Taxi Driver.
Perhaps before the release people were expecting a return to a Taxi Driver style of film. On the surface, it’s not hard to see why. Then, after watching the movie, Bringing Out the Dead seems to have more in common with The Last Temptation of Christ than it does with Taxi Driver.
This is a character study in an underbelly of New York that is rarely seen. Yet, this dark subject matter feels more like a story of a deity figure–one seeking redemption who is burdened by his job but also can’t quit it. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) doesn’t have much in common with Travis Bickle (from Taxi Driver) even if Scorsese and Schrader’s direction might be operating in a similar character sphere.
Pierce is constantly haunted by the characters he saves and even the ones that he doesn’t. He faces contradictions out of his control like why couldn’t he save a child but could save a drug dealer? His job is the cross he must bear but unlike Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this one is endured by choice. He wasn’t fated by God to die for sinners, but he feels obligated to do it anyway, even as he tries everything to get himself fired.
Bringing Out The Dead is a film that is no doubt a careful meditation on the ghosts of the past and the possibility of something better in the future.me
It’s a film that goes beyond standard plotting for something a bit more episodic. Each event brings Frank closer to revelation and the film carefully builds on this premise. Admittedly, this path does lead to a somewhat repetitive motion of events towards the middle, but it allows the viewer to feel the same weight and intensity that Frank feels.
Bringing Out the Dead exists in a space of non-stop moments between life and death of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, speeding through the crowded streets of New York City, adrenaline ruling your life and feeling responsible for the people who need help.
What is definitely more similar to Taxi Driver is that Bringing Out The Dead is led by a classic, career-defining performance from the lead actor, Nicholas Cage.
I’ve never really been on the side that he is a bad actor like a portion of the Internet pretends he is (just because they saw that one clip from The Wicker Man remake). However, I’m coming around further around to the idea that not only is Cage a really good actor but a great one. If not that, one of the best actors working (yes, I said that).
In Bringing Out The Dead, Cage makes incredibly careful acting choices, which are the moments that really bring his character to life.
The character of Frank Pierce is not an easy character to play. There are moments where Cage has to be bigger, command the room that he is standing in or play up the adrenaline that is his line of work. He also has to pull off those quiet moments in the ambulance where you really see the inner conflict and turmoil play out without any dialogue.
Scorsese and Schrader want you to believe the pain in Frank’s eyes and Cage is dynamic enough as an actor to pull that off. We know he can portray intensity but the heart of the performance is in those silent stares out the window as the lights of the streets bear down on him.
I was mesmerized by his performance. It really is a shame this is his only collaboration with Scorsese, the pair could have gone on to do more amazing work together.
All of this is brought together by the filmmaking mastery of Martin Scorsese. Schrader’s script supplies an incredible foundation and Cage’s performance elevates it further, but it’s the filmmaking that makes this film great.
Working with cinematographer Robert Richardson (who has also worked with Oliver Stone and Quinton Tarantino), Scorsese creates a film that uses heightened lighting to blur the lines between reality and the supernatural.
Scorsese almost never deals with explicit supernatural forces in his movies but here it is on full display — a struggle between what Frank sees and what we are meant to see. It’s real to Frank and that’s all that matters.
Scorsese brings this blend together by creating a world that both looks gritty and unreal at the same time. The harsh New York City night lights bear down on the windshield of the ambulance as it reflects the traffic lights and headlights. Scorsese is able to communicate intensity with his propulsive filmmaking, which allows Bringing Out The Dead to keep feeling like it is nothing more than “brooding piece.”
There is life to these frames. Life that creates tension giving each moment a sense of danger, but also to give the feeling that maybe there is something beyond the three-dimensional world we see. The story informs the filmmaking and the filmmaking brings that story to life.
Why Didn’t It Do Better?
I don’t know if I can diagnosis why Bringing Out The Dead flew under the radar both in terms of its release and post-release. Not much is written about it, especially in comparison to other Scorsese films. It was a different movie landscape in 1999.
This came out the same year as The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. Blockbusters weren’t going anywhere but were only slated to take up a bigger place in our film landscape. Maybe it was just the wrong time? Maybe in the 1970s this would have played better? Maybe on a smaller budget and distributor like A24 or Neon this could have done better now?
I’m not sure what the answer is but this movie doesn’t even have a proper Blu-ray release.
After this, Scorsese makes Gangs of New York on a massive budget, scores 10 Oscar nominations, Daniel Day-Lewis immortalizes the film, and Scorsese starts his long-running collaboration with DiCaprio where they would go on to make movies like The Aviator, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
As you can see, Scorsese’s career certainly didn’t take a hit for Bringing Out The Dead but it is a shame that most people forget about this little era in his career.
Being forgotten is not what this movie deserves.
This is certainly not a definitive article on this movie. I think the movie’s complexities allow for further interpretation, but I hope this will inspire more to check this film out.
It’s quickly risen in my ranking of Martin Scorsese pictures. The film is immaculately sculpted and is rich in text. It has the depth of other Schrader/Scorsese collaborations while still exploring new themes and outlooks on life. It plunges us into grief and asks us to experience Frank Pierce’s demons and his ghosts and you’ll be richer for it.
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