I just finished watching “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999)…


…and during the midst of Nicolas Cage’s drug trip scene, I was reminded why we should thank the film gods for Scorsese’s signature, cinematic freneticism.  Then the film snaps out of hyper-stylized, drug-trip-mode, and we just get to watch Cage freaking out.  I was then reminded why we should thank those same gods for Cage’s ability to “go all the way” like only Cage can.  It was this moment I went from liking, to really really liking this film.

Watching movies is something I obviously enjoy, and I have always wanted to keep an ongoing log as I do so.  Whenever I have noted my immediate impressions and musings after watching a film, I’ve noticed it can be helpful for retaining whatever it is I’ve learned from the experience.  So, in that “I’ve just finished watching” framework and spirit, this blog post is a first attempt at keeping an official movie-watching journal.


Seeing Bringing Out the Dead was nice because I could check one more film off my to-watch list for both Scorsese and Cage’s oeuvres.  It was also an unexpected surprise.  I think I was only vaguely aware of its existence when it was originally released (even in middle school I was usually aware of the R-rated new releases, but my guess is I was too distracted buying action figures valuable collectibles in preparation for a new Star Wars movie coming out).  If the prospect of seeing a Cage/Scorsese joint wasn’t enough for me already, I was officially sold on renting this film thanks to the listing of its co-stars Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore.  Sure!


So what is Bringing Out the Dead?  Directed by the maestro of movement, Martin Scorcese, it’s a film starring Mr. Cage as an alcoholic paramedic who goes from on-the-brink-of-going-crazy, to crazy, due to compounding factors related to his job.  He’s haunted by the ghosts of those he couldn’t save.  He (and we) see them, in fact.  It’s also about how humans react when death and depression are a constant presence in their lives.  It’s about how shaky and unideal our medical system is for patients and doctors alike.  It’s about the effects resulting from when a person might live or die, and being helpless to do anything about it.  It asks if the people working the jobs can be just as crazy as the “crazy” people.  It’s also exactly what I have come to expect—and want—from a Scorsese film: a dude falling far down his rabbit hole of demons, and it being strangely beautiful to watch.


The film’s a rare example for me as far as Scorsese’s work goes, in that I enjoyed the second half more than the first half.  In a Scorsese movie like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, the first half is typically reserved for the protagonist’s “superhero” origin story.  It’s always a lot of fun getting to see and experience somone learning how to use their super power.  Like Spiderman webbing his first villain or Leonardo Dicaprio wolfing his way up Wall Street, we can’t help but get swept up with, or at the least fascinated by, a person going through such an outside-the-norm situation.  But by the nature of Bringing Out the Dead taking place over a successive string of just a few days or so, the first half could never be quite as sweepingly exhilarating as the first half of one of those Leo-or-De Niro-starring, anti-hero character studies whose story spans decades.  More crazy, monumental, good-movie moments exist by the nature of those stories spanning decades, is all.  More criminals killing people.  More Aviator plane crashes.  It’s not Bringing Out the Dead’s fault it takes place in just a few days.  

Lucky for us, they are still a very crazy few days (or nights, would be more accurate).  In fact, the short timeline only helps with eliciting that up-all-night, fever dream, feel.  From beginning to end, Scorsese’s kinetic and subjective filmmaking style—intense close-ups, camera moves, transitional quick-cuts, sideways shots, Nic Cage, Nic Cage—we feel like we’re going crazy with Niwithc Cage with Nic Cage Nic Cage the protagonist (Nic Cage).  This style, combined with Cage’s performance, kept the film interesting throughout.


As I said though, I especially enjoyed the second half, where it really hit that wonderous and trippy stride, and never wavered the rest of the film. Like any good Scorsese protagonist, it was fun to observe the main character’s ego further deflating/inflating, spelling his demise, in one sense of the word or another.  It’s often during this demise-time in Scorsese’s decades-spanning films when an interesting feeling sets in.  The feeling has a certain kind of hazy feel, where time takes on a dream-like quality: where again, we’re filmically sharing the psychosis of the character.  It’s when Leo locks himself in his room in The Aviator.  It’s the section where we have vague memories of somber candles and mustaches and grime in Gangs of New York.  It’s usually when the soundtrack is used to bridge scenes, and we lose track of where exactly we are in the timeline.  It could also probably be described as that part in the movie where someone would be falling asleep if they’re bored by the movie.  It’s a feeling that’s most potent when seeing something in theaters.  Anyway, if there is a point I’m making here, it’s that Bringing Out the Dead’s entire second half has that feeling, where it’s Scorsese at his most nutty.  And that is cool and noteworthy to me.


Not that there was anything wrong with the first half.  There was a lot to like.  Getting introduced to and quickly lost in Nic Cage’s dark and dreary nighttime world, filled with far-gone street crazies and blood.  Cage and Arquette’s sorta-courtship.  Arquette.  Hanging out with Cage’s various ambulance co-pilots, all of whom are actors playing the kind of roles I unabashedly embrace them in: John Goodman, affable and angry; Ving Rhames, cool and preachy; Tom Sizemore, loud and dickish.  All good things.


Even at the film’s relatively svelt running time of two hours, I’d say the film’s, um, “quality of legitimacy” is right up there with the three-hour-long, decades-sprawling Scorcese films.  Yet Dead stands alone tonally amongst [what I’ve seen of] them.  The subject matter, in combination with the story, allows for—demands, actually—a tone and humor unique unto itself, as far as Scorsese’s filmography goes.  

Yes, it’s humorous and wacky like After Hours, but way darker.  Yes, it’s humorous and wacky AND dark like The King of Comedy, but here the humor on display is overtly and overwhelmingly morbid.  For example, there’s a scene where a gruesome impalement is actually funny, despite the film also having that engrossingly naturalistic and grounded feeling Scorsese and his cast seem to do so effortlessly.  This morbid tone is probably most evident in the writing, like in a scene where Nic Cage is in an ambulance lying to a (in this moment) suicidal reoccurring character to calm him down, promising he’ll help him kill himself as soon as they get to the hospital.  I was cracking up at Cage’s increasing frustration over having to offer constant reassurance he’ll help the man kill himself.  “Hold this. If you let go, I swear I won’t kill you”  (And I swear, the scene works in the movie).


I can definitely recommend Bringing Out the Dead to anyone who is both a Scorsese fan and a Cage fan.  If that’s you, then it’s a must see.  It’s also worth checking out if you’ve seen and liked all the other more famous (albeit, for a reason) Scorsese movies, and this is one that you’ve overlooked. Both of these positions were the case for me, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.

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 Ryan McDuffie

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I am one of the three co-founders of Finite Films. My films up on the site are "Last Year," "Lovebound: Love Abounds," "Forest Falls," "The Kristy Corollary," and the music video "JuJaJe."

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