A chief trouble with Martin Scorsese’s new film is that it has to strain to be a Scorsese film. Certain graphic qualities have marked most of his work, and as with any director of personality and style, those qualities had become as natural to him as breathing. But in Bringing Out the Dead, the formerly natural seems forced, redemptive, almost salvaging.
This sense of pumping, instead of flow, grows from the material he chose here and the people he chose to play it. Bringing Out the Dead is about the emergency medical service (EMS) in New York, the paramedics in the ambulances that respond to urgent calls for help. Joe Connelly’s novel of the same name was adapted by Paul Schrader, himself a gifted director (The Comfort of Strangers, Affliction), who in 1976 wrote Taxi Driver for Scorsese. That earlier film had a lonely streetlamp texture that connects with this new film. But Taxi Driver enlightened us in some degree, took us into the beings of people who engaged us, if only in horror; very soon after this EMS story begins, we have a fair idea of where it’s heading. There are few enlightenments of any kind.
Scorsese apparently understood this problem from the start. He knew that, in order to keep us interested, in order to distinguish his film from the TV hospital serials that are chockablock with emergency-room crises, he would have to lay on the Scorsese style, which television could not approach: a kaleidoscope of ugly back streets and squirming, dingy lives, all captured in rapid-fire, hot-off-the-press editing—a frantic ballet of eternal night set to strident music. Those qualities are laid on here, but this time his style seems an attempt at recompense, even justification, for the familiarity and gawkiness of the material.
Nicolas Cage—of whom, alas, more later—plays the lead, a paramedic who is so ground down by the grimness of his work that he is nearly burned out. Responding to a call about a man’s heart attack, he meets the man’s daughter, played—another alas—by Patricia Arquette. Through the coursings of this attenuated film, built on the calls to which Cage responds in the three nights of the story, Cage and Arquette develop a sort of romance, not the usual boy-girl pursuit but the tumbling together of their lives, especially at the hospital, where she visits her unconscious father.
Cage’s character is plunked on us early, largely through his voice-over descriptions of himself as a sort of ambulance-driving Hamlet. (“I’d always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn’t wait for me to sleep”) Arquette’s character doesn’t even have the limited benefit of a template. She is an ex- (but not quite ex-) druggie; there’s a suggestion that she has been rather free in her sex life; she hates her father but now that he’s in danger she is concerned, even though they’ve had rough times between them; so she’s worn and tough but basically a good kid. Et cetera. All along, there are hints and additions about her, attempts to give her some sort of comprehensible being. But the ad hoc character-patching is hokey.
The defect is worsened by Arquette herself. To say that her talent is limited is to lavish praise on her. She doesn’t act, she skims. Her superficiality is aggravated by her voice, which at latest count has three notes, none of them enticing. Cage at least has five or six notes, depending on how loud he has to be at the moment. Basically, his acting has two expressions: soulful melancholy, in which he suggests a bereft beagle, and screaming outbursts, which are always a welcome refuge for an inadequate actor. Every scene between Arquette and Cage—there are many—saps Scorsese’s surrounding realism; and this drain on credibility turns his stylistic dazzle into first aid for the wounds that his actors inflict on the picture.
Admittedly, neither of these actors is helped by the dialogue. Connelly, the novelist, says that Schrader, the screenwriter, used most of the book’s dialogue. I haven’t read the novel, but if we take Connelly’s word, then, on the evidence of the film, Schrader made a mistake. He should have rewritten. Much of Connelly’s language in voice-over and dialogue sounds like the lyricism of 193os metropolitan columnists. (“This city, it’ll kill you if you’re not strong enough.”) The Styrofoam verbiage is yet another fakery that makes the cinematic realism look desperate.
The three different ambulance partners with whom Cage travels on the film’s three nights are played acceptably by John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore. The last two characters seem like cases themselves, as if they ought to be patients, not paramedics. With Rhames driving, the speeding ambulance overturns. (No patient is aboard; Rhames and Cage are unhurt. It’s just a romp.) Sizemore savagely beats up a drug addict and is last seen smashing the headlights of an ambulance. And Cage, on his own decision, commits a mercy killing. Connelly was himself a paramedic for ten years and presumably based his novel on observation. If so, the EMS that he depicts is one of the bigger threats to New York’s health.
The best work by any of Scorsese’s colleagues comes from the cinematographer and the editor. Robert Richardson, who shot several of Oliver Stone’s finest, uses his camera to dig into shadows, to write emptiness across nighttime streets, to render the glare of neon avenues almost obscene. One of the visual themes in the picture is the face of a teenage girl whose life Cage did not save. Her face haunts him, and keeps recurring whenever Scorsese thinks the film needs a bit of metaphysical poignancy. Richardson gives this dubious device as much appeal as possible, including a scene in which (with digital assistance, no doubt) her face appears on several young women in one shot. The film editor was Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited almost all of Scorsese’s pictures, understands his nervous energy, and can translate it into rhythm and abutment. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score, which he studded with rock numbers that shake the picture, Bernstein hopes, into pungency.
Scorsese has sometimes worked outside the contemporary city, notably in The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun. The first of these was by far the best of the three, partially because (as Pasolini did in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew) he treated the subject in a modern key. In his two other off-beat films, he seemed to be confined, as if dressed in uncomfortable clothes, gifted surely but not quite at ease.
Let him be at ease, then, in underside and underworld films about New York; we’ll be the beneficiaries. But let’s hope that he won’t choose future subjects just because they may afford him that ease. And let’s hope that he’ll be harder to please in his casting.
The New Republic, November 22, 1999