Bringing Out the Dead (VHS, 2000, Special Edition - Spanish Subtitled Fullscreen)

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One or more marriages made in Hell

Mar 19, 2011 (Updated Mar 19, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:most of the supporting cast; raising a junkie from the dead

Cons:Patricia Arquette, screenplay, aimlessness, length, overdose of religious symbols...

The Bottom Line: It took me a dozen years to get around to watching it and I was sorry I ever did


Although I think that “Taxi Driver” is a grotesquely overrated movie and “Hardcore” a spectacularly bad one, I think that Martin Scorsese and his four-time (sometimes?) scenarists Paul Schrader have both made some very good movies. Their 1999 collaboration, “Bringing Out the Dead” is IMO startlingly bad, combining the worst excesses of Schrader’s Calvinism and Scorsese’s baroque sensibilities.

Having Nicolas Cage as a sort of Christ figure was dubious, though Cage had shown he was good at playing human wreckage in his 1997 Oscar-winning performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Pairing him his then-wife, the vacant (and very badly dressed) Patricia Arquette as a Mary Magdalene figure sealed disaster, even before the hallucinations and grotesqueries encountered by the burnt-out (and/or manic-depressive) Frank Pierce (Cage). I don’t want to remember and catalog them. (There’s even a Virgin Birth—piling on with twins.)

The movie does have three entertaining supporting performances: John Goodman as Frank’s partner the first night, Ving Rhames as Frank’s partner the second night, and Marc Antony in a dreadlock fright wig as a deranged (perhaps not entirely from drugs) regular customer. And in smaller parts as nurses at St. Mary of Mercy’s ER, it also has Mary Beth Hurt and Aida Turturro. And as unseen dispatchers, there are the voices of Scorsese and  Latifah.

I noticed the name of Elmer Bernstein in the credits, though the soundtrack is crammed with a wide range of singers, including Frank Sinatra, Marc Anthony, the Who, the Melodians, Martha Reeves, Can Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Clash, 10,000 Maniacs. That’s already enough of a list to induce schizophrenia, I think! Plus bits of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

The lurid cinematography of Manhattan as a precinct of hell was shot by the accomplished Robert Richardson  (who also shot “The Aviator” and “Shutter Island” for Scorsese along with “Platoon” and other movies for Oliver Stone, and various extreme Quentin Tarantino projects), and the editing was done by the redoubtable Thelma Schoonmaker, who has cut almost all of Scorsese’s movies. (I think she should have cut a whole lot more of the 121 minutes here, though.)

There was not a talent of shortage involved! Beginning with Frank telling about losing his life-saving mojo was a bad idea, as was his haunting by a girl he lost 6-12 months before the weekend of the movie. Schrader also burdened Cage with saying, “I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop.” Lines like this pair should never, ever be uttered in a movie. “Show don’t tell” is not an absolute mandate (and the movie shows a lot of gore and misery and despair), but Scorsese should either have reminded Paul Schrader of its wisdom or not recorded the lines or cut them.

I guess one could say that the movie is visually pulsating, but the story never has a pulse, so can’t flatline. (I haven’t read the novelization of his experiences as an Emergency Medical Technician by Joe Connelly, I don’t know if the original book was DOA or was killed by Schrader and/or Scorsese.)

The DVD includes two trailers and one of those "we all love each other's work so much" making of featurettes. A commentary track with Scorsesee and Schrader explaining what they were trying to do might have been more interesting and more entertaining than the movie itself is.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray


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