ER without a miracle cure
By Peter Robinson
BRINGING OUT the Dead follows Frank, a New York paramedic, over three consecutive nights at work. He feels burnt out from working long hours and has not saved anyone for months. Frank is haunted by visions of people he has failed to save. He survives on coffee and whisky, drinking even when he is in the ambulance. He patrols the Hell's Kitchen area, which is an apt name as it is a world inhabited by drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, gangsters and people with assorted mental health problems.
Frank is exhausted, ill and often misses shifts. He tries to quit but they are short staffed at work. Early in the film Frank and his colleague are called to treat a heart attack victim. He is taken to Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy Hospital, which is known by locals as "Misery" because it is so poorly resourced.
One of the subtexts of the film is that if you cannot pay for healthcare or are not insured then this is the kind of care you must expect. Mary, the heart attack victim's daughter, tells Frank, "This city...it'll kill you if you aren't tough enough." They find each other's company comforting and their friendship grows. We feel great sympathy for Mary and want her father to survive so that she can attempt to rebuild her relationship with him.
Unfortunately the hospital can do nothing for him. In what is the most powerful and uplifting moment in the film, Frank intervenes to stop his suffering. Nicholas Cage's performance as Frank is totally believable. It is the type of driven and self destructive character that he has made his own.
Patricia Arquette is excellent as Mary, struggling to gain control of her life. The supporting cast brings welcome touches of dark humour. The soundtrack is great. Martin Scorsese, who made some of the best movies of the 1970s, Hollywood's golden age, directed the film. Although this film does not have the impact of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull it is extremely powerful and thought provoking.
Some reviewers say that the film is set in the early 1990s, before Mayor Giuliani and zero tolerance (true), and that everything is great in New York now (not true). Scorsese is telling us this is how life is, what it makes us do to each other, and the compromises we make with ourselves in order to survive.