Flannery O’Connor once wrote to her friend Betty Hester; “all my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” This might also serve as a description of those three collaborations between director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, of which 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead is the last. For Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic and Schrader, who was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, grace isn’t some fuzzy-felt affair. God doesn’t wear mittens. Grace is violent and reaches people at their lowest ebb in the searing, unconditional present of their daily-lived lives. It cannot be achieved complacently. Cage, an Italian-American by birth like Scorsese, was raised a Catholic, but in interview refuses to be prescriptive with regards to his own religious feelings. One might conjecture a belief in the benevolent justice of Marvel Comics heroes, tempered by the restorative power of personal creativity, with some more abstract, holistic ideas of a cosmological order sincerely but speculatively entertained. What we can be more certain of Cage’s belief in is, I think, the need for good, romantic figures who act with integrity; fuelled by a personal vision sometimes knowable only by themselves.
In Bringing Out the Dead Cage plays Frank, a paramedic who cruises the streets for the sick and the dying looking for the sweet hit of salvation he gets from saving a life. There’s an inner sluice of humanitarian feeling in Frank, only those waters have got a little muddied; the sluice has got bent out of shape. The reason…? Frank is very, very tired. As much as Bringing Out the Dead is a story of inner-city grace, it’s also a paean to the incredible, curative powers of sleep told through the character study of a man who doesn’t get any. Either the make-up work in the film is top notch or else Cage slept with slices of onion in place of cucumber slices, because he’s got enough sagging under-eye flesh to fill an elephant’s graveyard. Throughout the film, Cage is bug-eyed and weary and through point-of-view shots and the film’s over-cranked cinematography, we share in the sense that Frank’s mind has, to quote The National, “come loose inside its shell”. Everything is too big; too close. Lights are too bright; movements too fast. With Frank we are cast into one of Scorsese’s odysseys of strangeness, like 1985’s After Hours and this year’s Shutter Island.
These are all films in which enjoyment derives less from the gratifying peaks and troughs of a story well told, but from the appreciation of moments that catch you off guard; lyrics in the soundtrack ironically matched to a scene’s action; tricksy displays of camera work. A character study, rather than a fully-fledged narrative, that charts three successively bleary night shifts in the life of Frank. In this way, Bringing Out the Dead feels like a road movie told from the front seat of a stalling, kicked-in ambulance from which we glance, a passenger, at the scenes of suffering through which we pass. Frank speculates in his troubled, brooding voice-over that his role as a paramedic is not so much to save lives as it is to bear witness; his mother always told him, he says to Patricia Arquette’s Mary, that he looked like a priest. The notion of the camera as a means of bearing witness is a notion engaged with by films more sober and less strung-out that this one, like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), which present the torments of their protagonist quietly. By contrast, Scorsese wants us to be in the maelstrom. Oddly, the film Bringing Out the Dead most recalled for me, was Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998); a queer comparison when we think that Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced suffering is self-willed in a way that Frank’s is surely not.
Actually, this is where the film strikes a curious note, which give it a maturity that the more structurally gratifying Scorsese-Shrader collaboration Taxi Driver (1976) lacks; Mary tells Frank plainly, “No-one asked you to suffer; that was your idea.” The film takes a hard-line on the need for human charity, but there’s a suggestion that suffering can become indulgent, can get in the way of doing good. This then, is a film about the pain of deep, unremitting concern but not letting that pain sink you too far into a rut; of not letting your anger about injustice contaminate the river of good will and good work.
Three different partners accompany Frank on his night shifts. The first is Larry, played by John Goodman, displaying the typical goony belligerence that characterises his roles, as he follows Cage into hostels and hospitals like a meaty familiar. Frank’s partners on the second two nights, played by Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore successively, display the two different ways of channelling an inner-river of moral manliness – this being a film about tough, on-the-streets charity performed by men, as is Shrader’s wont. Marcus, played by Rhames, has taken the path of the preacher; brimming over with love for the Lord and his belief in Salvation. Tom, played by Sizeman, beats down those he thinks are less deserving of his charity, warped by the injustice that, to his mind, dictates that a self-harmer receives help and medical attention, while a homicide victim dies. This path is eventually shown as destructive as the last shot we see of Tom is of him pounding his ambulance in emasculated fury; trying pathetically to destroy the very vehicle that helps him save lives. To quote again, this time from Kurt Vonnegut, “God damn, you’ve got to be kind.”
As ever with Cage it’s the eyes that show the kindness. Occasionally his face softens from a Loony Tunes death’s head into a smile or an expression of compassion and love. In these moments, Cage might remind us of Seth from City of Angels, but a Seth that’s been out on the streets for too long and has fallen away from idealism. Since Cage’s performance jolts along with the camera work, thrashes out to the music of the Clash, it’s a real sea change when he slows things down to become something like an everyman. Personally, I find this preferable to the all-out sapling-eyed dew-baby fawn-a-like naivete of an angel whose wings have yet to go to the dry-cleaners… but, of course, I can see the appeal. Some days, you just want to turn away from the suffering and watch something nice. Most of Bringing Out the Dead is “hard, hopeless and brutal”, its only humour straight from the gallows, but the shot that really stayed with me is the shot of Frank and Mary sitting together in the back of the much-abused ambulance, smiling to themselves and almost, but not quite, holding hands.