After making the sprawling Tibetan historical epic, Kundun, Scorsese’s return to New York for the filming of Bringing Out The Dead must have felt like a veritable homecoming. However, why someone would ever want to return to – let alone visit – the blood-splattered New York he conjures up in Bringing Out The Dead is beyond me.
Nicholas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a paramedic tormented by the things he’s seen in the hellish Manhattan nights he’s forced to drive his ambulance through. Haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, Pierce is reduced to relying on a variety of chemical stimulants and depressants just to keep the hallucinations at bay for the duration of his shift. To describe Frank as stressed would be an unforgivable understatement. At one point, after waking up from a drug-induced, post-traumatic nightmare, his face contorts in a scream of pure despair that looks like it was painted by Edvard Munch.
The city in the fraught, flashing lights of the ambulance, like Frank, looks as though it’s barely standing: The infirm, the insane and the disfigured dwell in the shadows on derelict street corners and around oil-drum fires under bridges; a pregnant prostitute stands in front of a chain-linked fence; drunks and drug addicts stumble around covered in their own vomit and worse; a war between feuding gangs erupts suddenly on the pavements leaving young men dead and bleeding; the façades of the buildings we enter rarely give way to anything more than the graffiti-covered, battered shells of what would have been homes. The New York of Bringing Out The Dead is a place where it’s always night and where chaos, violence and degradation rule as Pierce struggles to put out the flames of Hell itself.
If this relentlessly bleak vision of New York seems familiar then it’s with good reason; the shadow of Travis Bickle looms over this film. Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead are linked in Scorsese’s oeuvre as they both follow loners broken by the squalid cityscapes they are forced to navigate. Structurally the films are very similar (Paul Schrader worked on the scripts for both) as they are character studies where the over-arching plot is interrupted by episodes that serve to flesh out the nocturnal and volatile worlds of each protagonist. That Bickle and Pierce both have jobs that enable them to explore New York, isolated behind their wheels and windshields, is central to this as Scorsese is able to provide us with panoramic views of the city and its people through interactions with their respective passengers.
However, the problem with comparing Taxi Driver to Bringing Out The Dead is that it usually serves to undermine the qualities of both films as well as Scorsese’s masterful crafting of characters that are at once endearing and challenging. Taxi Driver is essentially a film about a man struggling to defy the city and its vices, while Bringing Out The Dead is arguably about a man coming to terms with and accepting what he can’t change. Both Bickle and Pierce are morally ambiguous anti-heroes, but the difference is that Pierce is essentially concerned with resolution and redemption – for both himself and for others – while Bickle, through his alienation and withdrawal from the city, becomes an agent of hatred and revenge. This makes Bringing Out The Dead a more nuanced and altruistic piece of cinema than its thematic predecessor, without it ever being sentimental or any more comfortable a film than the disconcerting Taxi Driver.
One of the main reasons Bringing Out The Dead is able to distinguish itself from such an iconic film as Taxi Driver is largely due to Robert Richardson’s inspired cinematography. Richardson, who also worked on Casino and who has made many of Scorsese’s later films and documentaries with him, used a technique called skip-bleaching to create the harsh tones and colours that characterise the rough vibrancy of the film’s street scenes. Skip-bleaching involves forgoing the bleach step so that the images retain more silver than they normally would in an ordinary printing process. This desaturates the colours and yields far deeper blacks, which is what gives the film its sharp contrasts between the textures of its lighting. The scenes of Pierce and his colleagues in the front seat of their ambulance are key examples of this use of colour and lighting as there is a bleak and ominous feel to the shots that mark Pierce’s descent into insanity.
Cage’s performance as Pierce is also pitch-perfect. It’s hard to think of another actor working in Hollywood today who has made a career out of mixing portrayals of deranged anti-heroes like the ones he plays in Bringing Out The Dead and Herzog’s recent adaptation of Bad Lieutenant, with traditional, blockbuster leading-man roles in films like Con Air and The Rock. 8mm, another film that gave Cage one of his great manic roles, came out in the same year as Bringing Out The Dead and it makes you wonder whether we’d now rank him alongside an actor like Harvey Keitel – who has become synonymous with roles that are typified by their frenetic intensity – if he’d carried on in this vein of playing challenging and conflicted characters and refrained from the mind-numbing mediocrity of films like Gone in Sixty Seconds and those in the National Treasure franchise. Regardless of his later career moves, Cage thrives in Bringing Out The Dead and is able to use both humor and desperation to create a character that is always alluring and endearing.
Cage’s strange and dynamic performance completes Scorsese’s vision of a chaotic New York because there is hardly one scene without him in it. In this sense, the city and Pierce are one; we see the mad, nightmare streets through his hallucinations and torment as he struggles to redeem himself. In one scene during his drug-induced vision we see Pierce actually pulling people up from the street itself as though it was the city that had swallowed them, not death.
There are a number of Bresson-inspired religious allegories and references to Christ that underpin the film’s narrative, and while I find Scorsese’s reliance on them to be largely overbearing and restrictive, it says something about his handling of both his narrative and his characters that the aesthetic of the film itself – its wit and its force – override these elements, dulling them in the blare and cry of the ambulance’s siren.