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The Angel of Death: Revisiting Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead

There’s always been something about the loner that Martin Scorsese keeps returning to throughout his work; the individual who is on the fringes of the society he inhabits, the outsider who doesn’t belong, and he may seem crazy but perhaps he might well be the only sane person there. Like Travis Bickle who came before him twenty three years ago, Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) is a creature of the night, who wanders the streets drifting without a clear sense of direction. As Josh Slater Williams from Little White Lies discusses in his piece how Cage and Scorsese make the perfect collaboration:

Cage is the ideal Scorsese protagonist because he looks so thoroughly chewed up and spat out – both by the urban horrors of his surroundings and his personal demons.

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Indeed there’s an unhinged madness to Cage’s performance in the film, presenting us with a man who is on the edge, ready to topple at any second. There are echoes of De Niro’s Travis Bickle here, and that only seems inevitable when you realise both Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead were penned by Paul Schrader. Fearghas Cleary from The Quietus manages to shed some light on the similarities between these two films:

Each narrative follows a man staggering back and forth across the thin demarcation between sanity and insanity – an internal landscape that is in no small part reflected by the perilous urban environment.

However, there’s something far more disturbing about the idea of Pierce losing his sanity than Bickle in Taxi Driver, Pierce is the man who is meant save us and has far more of an impact in society.

Rather than parody De Niro’s performance (which some other actors might have tried to do in this situation), Cage manages to fully make this character his own and helps present Pierce as a character we are both disgusted by and also empathise with. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert praised Cage’s performance and described the actor as having “heedless emotional availability.”.

There’s so much anxious and repressed rage inside the character of Frank Pierce, which Cage masterfully demonstrates by his deadpan expressions and constantly blinking eyes, we can practically see the internal struggle that he is experiencing to suppress his emotions. And when he’s not blinking, he’s staring intently into the distance, being haunted by ghosts that only he can see. It’s a performance that echoes the German Expressionism movement of the early 1920s, which of course took its inspiration from the shell shocked soldiers returning from the trenches, and Cage certainly appears to be channeling some form of post-traumatic stress disorder here for his performance. As Ebert discusses in his review:

I like the subtle way he and Scorsese embody what Frank has learned on the job, the little verbal formulas and quiet asides that help the bystanders at suffering. He embodies the tragedy of a man who has necessary work and is good at it, but in a job that is never, ever over.

And I am inclined to agree with the critic, I very much enjoy Cage’s performance here, and this represents his capability of an actor, it seems a shame that he has almost become just a parody nowadays.

Like Bickle, we are first introduced to Frank as he furiously drives around the streets of New York City, a phantom rider, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. We open on an extreme close up on his eyes, these belong to a man who has seen too much, but also give us an indication that he is lost and helpless in this world. Like the nights and scenes that plague Travis in Taxi Driver, Frank’s endless nights seem to blur into one. Although title cards declare the days are “Thursday. Friday. Saturday.” but how are we to trust them when the narrator is losing grip on reality?

Even Scorsese declares that “Nic Cage’s character is cracking.” Frank seems hellbent on just saving someone’s life, it’s been a few weeks since he’s managed to bring someone back from the brink of death, but he’s not doing it for them, he’s doing it to fulfill his purpose in life. As Frank states in his narration, “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world….God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there – why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”

Bringing Out The Dead

Like all good addicts, Frank is itching for another fix and suffering from withdrawal symptoms, and as a result the film becomes far more surreal as it unfolds until it reaches boiling point. A series of bizarre events occur slowly but steadily, like the outbreak of this new drug which unleashes a wave of gang violence and junkies OD’ing, a pregnant virgin and an ambulance toppling over in the middle of street. It makes for an unsettling viewing experience, accompanied by all too realistic scenes of gore and violence. The blood here isn’t vivid red nor does it spray like a comical burst hose pipe, but it oozes and dribbles out of people. It spatters and it dries in a dirty brown smear.

The end of “Thursday” shows Frank’s face flecked in specks of blood with blobs just above his upper life, and it’s a stomach churning sight, this seems all too real, too close to comfort. However, there are hints of black comedy in the gore, as discussed by Richard Schickel for Conversations with Scorsese: “It’s very New York- you see the humour of it within the horror.”

A perfect example is the scene where Frank and Marcus (Ving Rhames) deliver a baby from a pregnant “virgin” only to see a total of three legs poking out from insider her, Marcus asks what it is, in which Frank delivers the line “It’s three legs” in a very matter-of-fact way, and Marcus responds with “That’s too many.” Although, in typical Scorsese fashion the humour gives way to horror, as we cut to Frank rushing into the A&E ward giving mouth to mouth to one of the twins, the whole situation stops becoming funny and becomes just another tragic event that makes up a night on the job.

It is Frank’s ghosts which seem the most bizarre side effect of his involuntary “cold turkey” and as a result we seem to be suspicious of everyone that he passes in his ambulance, are they really alive or just figments of his mind trying desperately to forget the past? The film proposes a really unsettling question, do we take these people for granted and what happens when one of them snaps during the line of duty.

The film also deals with the concept of having responsibility for another person’s life, as Scorsese discusses in the book Conversations with Scorsese and states that he wanted to explore what we expect of ourselves. As a result of the pressures of the job it’s no surprise that Frank snaps, and in one of the most amusing scenes in the film he demands his captain fires him as he promised to if Frank turned up late for work again, but the irony is that if Frank is fired there is no one who can do the job, they are already stretched so thin.

Frank seems lost in the world, without any purpose and as a result the film doesn’t have a traditional third act structure. This is a common trait of Scorsese’s films, as discussed by Robert Kolker in A Cinema of Loneliness:

None of the characters [in the film] has the center or sense of direction that one expects from characters in conventional film fictions and it is a purpose of the film to observe them in their randomness and as an unpredictable flow of events.

Kolker was discussing Mean Streets (1973) but his observation can be used in the discussion of Bringing Out The Dead as Frank isn’t the only lost character drifting around the streets of New York aimlessly. Mary (Patricia Arquette) is like Frank, she is also a loner drifting around the city whilst trying to escape her past before it catches up to her, and we discover that she has become estranged from her father who Frank brings into the hospital. She is a shadow of her former self, a woman who as been left behind as her peers have grown up and have left the neighbourhood, and there’s something tragic about this.

Frank seems obsessed with her, but it’s debatable whether he’s attracted to her and it’s a sexual/romantic desire that drives him, or whether it’s the need to rescue her from the situation. However, Mary isn’t as fragile as she seems and states that “You have to be strong to survive in this city.” she is well aware that she needs to be strong, but the strain is beginning to catch up with her, and like Frank she’s beginning to crumble.

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It can be argued that Frank represents the second act of adult life, with Travis being the representation of the first crisis in adult life. Frank is an embodiment a man nearing a mid-life crisis, and discussed by Phil Nobile Jr. for birthmoviesdeath.com, we can interpret the film as being a representation of:

some sort of mid-life crisis, a love letter to a city from a director pushing 60, using his gifts to process the sadness of mortality on his own terms.

Indeed, it seems that Frank could be the cousin/brother of Travis Bickle, their situations and lives seem to echoing one and others, which creates this eternal aspect to the film. Although the film’s setting is apparently set in the 90s, it seems almost timeless, this story and character could belong to any time, any era. As Fergus Clearly states:

Despite being set in a very specific area of New York at a very specific time, Scorsese effectively deconstructs period and place into ethereal webs that cling to Frank Pierce, effectively aiding in further disrupting his disposition.

It can be argued that Taxi Driver has the same disconnected from time feeling, the sole purpose of the film is to focus “on one isolated urban semi individual who has difficulty making any contact with the external world” (Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness). Time is merely a construct that society follows, so if you are an outsider who is disconnected from the rest of the society, it would make sense that you would become disconnected from time.

Upon its release, Bringing Out The Dead was a flop which had a budget of $55 million, and only earned just  $17 million worldwide. As Scorsese confesses “The picture was tough for audiences, and that was a moment [1999] that those kinds of films weren’t being supported by the studio.” And like the other massive flop of the year, Fight Club, Bringing Out the Dead gives a glimpse of the fragility of human life and the even more fragile state of the human consciousness.

The film may be tough to watch, but life is tough and that’s something that Scorsese won’t sugar coat or shy away from, and that’s why Bringing Out the Dead should be revisited and celebrated especially in these extra sensitive times full of trigger warnings. The real world is a tough and brutal place, it’s past time that we wake up from our comas and face our ghosts.

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One Comment

  1. Dan O. Dan O. March 23, 2018

    One of Scorsese’s weirder ones. Which is saying something. Nice review.

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