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Written by: Paul Schrader based on the novel by Joe Connelly

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Marc Anthony, Tom Sizemore, Queen Latifah

Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) is a New York medic who works the grave shift and drinks far too much during the days. He’s running on fumes, is usually pretty strung out and he’s being haunted by the ghosts of all the people who have died on his watch. In Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, Cage plays a man teetering on the absolute edge of chaos.

Frank spends his nights on duty with a rotating cast of partners including the relatively straight Larry (John Goodman), the Bible thumping Lothario Marcus (Ving Rhames) and the sociopathic Tom (Tom Sizemore), all of whom are complacent in their very serious profession. Frank and whichever partner spend their nights driving their ambulance while drinking hard from flasks of liquor, abusing their power and tormenting patients with a weird mixture of twisted compassion and sadism. In Bringing Out the Dead Scorsese presents the New York of Taxi Driver via the druggy, disorienting carnivalesque New York of After Hours. So much adds to the paranoid, dopey atmosphere of this film; constantly flashing lights, unhinged camera angles that swing wildly and give insane perspectives of the city streets, patients strapped to gurneys in the over-crowded inner-city hospitals shrieking  in agony, mostly resulting from the use of a new street poison called Red Death. Scorsese’s soundtrack here is more manic and jittery than ever before, jerking from song to song, genre to genre, a rapid-fire jukebox nightmare that changes its mood so frequently and so violently that it matches Frank’s own shattered psyche.

By the film’s start, Frank has been enduring a weeks-long period during which every one of his patients has passed away. Surely this has to do with some combination of Frank’s furious drinking habit, his lack of sleep, the violent neighborhood in which he works and the rise of Red Death. Frank acknowledges none of this and assumes he is touched by some evil, that the string of deaths are some harbinger of a coming apocalypse. Frank sees the death of one girl as the beginning of this string of deaths, and he believes he sees her ghost in every person on New York’s busy streets. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader draw relatively explicit parallels between contemporary inner-city New York and The Great Plague (the hot new drug is called Red Death and the movie, for God’s sake, is called Bringing Out the Dead). That the parallels are made clear does not make the film’s implications any less interesting; This film threatens the sins of modern life with punishment akin to hell on Earth. Drug addiction, prostitution, violence,  are all rampant in these neighborhoods and though Frank is an adamant non-believer, he repeatedly tells of a fire, and how the world is already burning. Nicholas Cage is astonishing in this role, but it’s really little surprise. Though he routinely makes more career missteps than otherwise, he repeatedly proves (In films like this one, Adaptation, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Leaving Las Vegas) that when paired with the right role, he is undeniably one of the strongest actors of his generation. As Frank, Cage’s eyes are set deep in the back of his skull and they never stop twitching, he’s emotionally unchained and constantly gunning for his own destruction.

Bringing Out the Dead is a great, strange film. There is a distinct relationship between this film and Scorsese and Schrader’s earlier Taxi Driver. In that film, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle is an emotionally damaged war vet whose attempts to cleanse the world of corruption result in his unintended heroism. Here, Frank Pierce is a similar character but instead of seeing himself as capable of saving humanity, he believes he is the only one who knows it’s too late, and even his attempts at helping are more like euthanasia than salvation. This movie is as deranged as its characters, and with dead black humour and heaps of weirdness, Scorsese has painted a mesmerizing portrait of collective madness and cultural rot.

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