“Bringing Out The Dead” is a movie that still captures what it feels like to know you’re trapped here. Cage’s performance is among the most relatable he’s ever given, someone who sees only suffering and tries to help but knows he can only do so much. Some people are beyond help and some people don’t want it. Cage cuts a figure not unlike Conrad Veidt as the sleepwalker in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” his fate not his own, doomed to tramp through life at someone else’s behest, whether it’s the ghosts of the victims he couldn’t save, the other drivers who keep threatening to get him killed, his boss, or simply the patients he has to save. He is compelled like a puppet to go through the motions of his job, and even on his off-hours he can’t help but check in on Patricia Arquette, who is waiting for news of their dead loved ones. Death is everywhere.
As you said above, that’s how it feels. I didn’t lose anyone to Covid but before the pandemic struck I had just had a four funeral six month stretch. So reeling from my own brushes with the deaths of loved ones, and to suddenly be assailed by news that more people were dying every day than had ever happened in our lives … it was overwhelming. It was exhausting. I couldn’t sleep anymore. Every phone call was a series of sighs and a sort of apology for having no news to share.
It did make you feel like Cage’s Frank Pierce. You want to help, to do something, but you can’t. The monstrous New York of “Bringing Out The Dead” feels like a waiting room, the antechamber to the afterlife. I remember it from my childhood visits to the city when I still lived in Pennsylvania. Or maybe the movie left such a strong impression that it’s now what I remember. You can still reach it, though it’s absent the harsh beauty of Robert Richardson’s camera work (this is my vote for the most Richardson movie – you can hear the light). This is a place that feels like the last gasp of a city invaded by demonic forces. New York in ’90s movies was truly godforsaken. “Mimic,” “Pi,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” every other Abel Ferrara movie, and finally “Bringing Out the Dead” was the last true classic of Giuliani’s ghoulish boom town. Pierce is the man who absorbed the pain and suffering of the place, each life he couldn’t save pinned to him like the arrows pinioning St. Sebastian. He’s the kind of hero Scorsese didn’t often locate, a man who knows exactly how bad he’s got it. Most of his characters have dreams. Pierce’s life is a nightmare.
Why do you think only some of us relate to this movie? I made an Unloved essay about this film half a decade ago, and it still doesn’t feel like its status has improved much in that time. Are those of us begging for an end to our feeling of responsibility for everyone we can’t and couldn’t save doomed to look into this broken mirror and see ourselves alone?
WM: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to say why people don’t respond to a movie. I do think there is something off-putting for some viewers to have their face pushed up against death and dying in such a manner, but I wish even then they could see the beauty in the construction of this movie. I believe that “Bringing Out the Dead” is one of Scorsese’s strongest pictures on the terms of locking into the subjective reality of his lead character. His direction, and for that matter the cinematography of Robert Richardson, is in complete communication with Frank Pierce. They are all as a whole with one another, and those movies where Scorsese succeeds on those terms tend to be my favorites from his oeuvre.
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