Thoughts on Bringing out the Dead

“I always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn’t wait for me to sleep…more than anything else wanted to sleep like that. Close my eyes and drift away.”

There is a moment in Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead, where our protagonist, Frank, looks on in despair as his nightly copilot, Larry, played by John Goodman, rests his head against the window of a New York City ambulance. Rain flows down the windshield, painting streaks of shadowed water on the men’s faces. The emerald lights of the night glow behind them in a stellar piece of cinematography. Larry lets out a few long breaths as his sleep begins to kick in. And with that, we have a lingering push in to Frank’s exhausted demeanor and then to his desperate eyes, looking on in anguish, tragically longing for the most natural of functions: sleep.

It is the strongest moment for the audience to appreciate Frank’s suffering. Frank has been beat down and taken advantaged of by his profession. Night after night, he goes where death, brutality, and tragedy await. Mocking him and his useless attempts at stoping fate. Bags and darkness have now filled Frank’s eyes, as he burrows through Hell’s Kitchen in the late hours of the night, envisioning the dead he failed to save.

Frank is a victim of sorts. He has misunderstood the fragility of life despite being in a position to save it. His copilots, along with their overconfidence and disturbing comfort, fail to recognize or detect his pain. Larry, for example, uses his profession as a means to provide for his family. The most troubling aspect of the night for him occurs when he hasn’t yet figured out what to eat.

Marcus played by Ving Rhames, is a Christian who manipulates a group of junkies into thinking that their OD’d bandmate has been resurrected by the power of Christ, while Frank discreetly plunges a shot of adrenaline into the man’s veins. Frank doesn’t receive any satisfaction in this mock rescue. Later in the night, he and Marcus answer a call which results in the birth of twin boys. Marcus gently smiles as he delicately holds the fragile life, moving it’s tiny arms and hands about. “Mine’s doing great. How’s yours doing?” Marcus looks over to see Frank, holding a motionless newborn. Frank’s luck with life in his line of duty is almost comical. He’s not finding death, It’s finding him.

“I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop.”

Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) has learned to bypass the horror altogether, instead looking to take matters into his own hands. Tom seems more interested in destroying what he has power over than saving it.

Frank, in the midst of his helplessness and frustration, decides to join with Tom, asking to go and break some windows during their shift. Tom is intrigued at the idea but confesses that there needs to be a specific reason for unleashing anarchy. When the two spot Noel, a junkie character with a penchant for troublemaking and recklessness, breaking car windows with a baseball bat, Frank sparks the notion that the pair should attack him. Tom is delighted, fond of the idea, but Frank spoils the plan during it’s course when Noel offers him the bat, insisting he let loose. But Tom nearly kills the junkie, using his own bat to break him. Frank, in a complete 180, begs him to stop and begins to tend the beaten man. Noel is nearing death, mouth spewing out blood, twitching erratically. Frank in the midst of their corrupt plan realizes this is the one life that he has the power to save. And at this point, any life will do, even if it belongs to that of a disruptive maniac.

All of the characters in the film, for that matter, whom surround Frank seem generally oblivious to his pain and suffering, making their dynamic all the stronger, but also help accentuate his helplessness.

Early in the film, our hero meets Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a man who had gone into cardiac arrest but miraculously survived during Frank’s attempt to save him. Frank’s interest in Mary seems less motivated by love, but by need. Everyone in the film seems inattentive to their difficult surroundings and lifestyles; except Mary, who is a recovering addict, thrown into a state of perpetual fear that her father may die. Frank is drawn to her, identifying her hardship in a world of disregard.

The doctors regularly bring the man back. His heart fails, they shock him, his heart fails, they shock him, and so on and so on. Frank realizes the man’s agony and pulls the plug. In his quest to save, Frank ironically has to kill in order to be humane. This is probably gasoline to the fire.

Bob Richardson’s cinematography is of course complete with very white top lights, painting his subjects in a glowing angelic manner. The film stock was given the bleach bypass treatment, accentuating the shadows, the grains, the whites and the blacks. Similarly, Spike Lee used this technique in his gritty urban tales (He Got Game, 25th Hour). This process also spotlights the colors, most notably the reds. Sirens, stop lights, street signs, blood, are all familiar ground in which this movie lives.

Bringing out the Dead is indeed a forgotten gem. Released in 1999, it failed to rank in money at the box office despite it’s critical acclaim. It not only reunited Scorsese with longtime collaborator Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) but also reunited the director’s fascination with Manhattan at night. Of course, comparisons to Taxi Driver will be made. They are certainly similar in their aesthetics. The sweeping car shots of New York’s hell at night, complete with voice over and slow motion to indicate the protagonist’s point of view. A man with a great sense of agony and loss, uncontrollable despair that has overwhelmed him, trying to make sense of it all. The brutality in Taxi Driver was acted out by Travis Bickle, unfortunately for Frank, he is a witness.

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