Stresses come in many shapes and forms, be it work, domestic or just watching your national team getting its ass handed to it In Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead we see a man burnt out and on the edge due to the various stresses that come with his job, one that I can only imagine is one of the toughest out there – working as a paramedic in New York City.
The action in Bringing Out The Dead happens over the course of a weekend, where Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) works the late shift in Hell’s Kitchen, each night with a different partner. We see him struggle with the job at hand, as well as being tormented – haunted, even – by those he tries to save.
When you are at the brink of emotional collapse, it’s tough to focus on the task at hand. Pierce keeps telling us that it has been over six months since he saved someone. On the first night of his triple shift, he does manage to bring an elderly man back from death, but only to a vegetative state.
Pierce also starts some form of relationship with the daughter of this (now) vegetable, Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), though we only in an instant see this take a romantic turn. We see two people, desperate for some kind of kinship, turning to a stranger for comfort and finding it.
Scorsese has this ability to bring New York down to its bare bones, and Bringing Out The Dead is no exception. Down in the depths of Hell’s Kitchen, the director shows us some of the stresses and extremes that one person can see in their life, and how they must cope with it.
He also manages to show us a diversifying character palette, the kind which could only be found in New York – these are portrayed through the various partners we see Pierce work with over the course of this weekend on camera. The first, Larry (John Goodman), is a good man, yet his stomach and hunger seem to creep in front of the well being of any would-be patients.
On the second night, Pierce finds himself sharing an ambulance with Marcus (Ving Rhames), a man who looks to Jesus for answers. This feels apt, as it seems that in Hell’s Kitchen, where goodness is a rarity, Christ is the one person you can turn to.
And finally we have Tom, portrayed by Tom Sizemore, an angry man (and almost polar opposite of the previous night’s partner) who kills time by beating up and walloping patients, drunks and the homeless.
One such homeless man who has his own story arc is Noel (Marc Anthony), the only man to be saved by Pierce over the course of the weekend, and then only because Pierce stopped one of Tom’s rampages. Noel appears throughout the movie, either in the hospital, on his way to the hospital, or having reason to be in the hospital. He is Mary’s neighbour and a deconstructed version of any man. His appearance can be portrayed in comparison to the last time Pierce had faith in himself.
Pierce tried his best to save a young girl, who falls victim to an asthma attack. But as a result of Pierce’s failing, she dies. It’s this moment which plagues Pierce over the course of the feature, haunting him at various points throughout his shifts.
However, towards the end of the film we see Pierce overcome these demons as he sets out to save Noel. Visually, this is portrayed by him lifting the souls of the passed out of the earth, leaving them to move on, and away from him.
Though not Scorsese’s most well-known effort, Bringing Out The Dead is indeed an important film. Precisely because it shows what can happen to a man who is, in every meaning of the term, burnt out. Pierce embodies a man on the edge as a result of his work, taking everything very seriously and to heart. It almost begs the question, should we all take a step back?
Granted, I personally feel that working the night shift in an ambulance in the heart of NY is probably one of the most draining jobs around, with stresses some of us can’t even imagine dealing with. Death, plague, mutilation, disease and injury, all before your lunch break? Not for me, thanks. But someone has to do it.
As I said, Scorsese has this ability to break New York down to its very bare bones. He knows the city, know the mechanics of how it works. And he shows this in many of his films, this being one of them. But Pierce and New York share a quality – fragility.
Pierce, on the brink of falling over the edge, is the human version of his neighbourhood. In the scenes where the ambulances drive around and through the city, it’s easy to gather that parts of Scorsese’s home are also teetering on the edge of destruction.
Scorsese is easily one of, if not the best, practitioner in movies today. And his work speaks for itself. This piece of work, it roars.