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Film Review: Bringing Out the Dead

Right. A quick quiz to start this one off. Name the Scorsese movie - scripted by Paul Schrader, its main protagonist holds down a job that sees him driving the streets of New York on the graveyard shift. As he navigates the decaying city he picks up all sorts of shady, suspicious and violent characters and delivers them to the destination they need to get to. Got it yet? Its scenes are punctuated with the main character's moody narration. Slowly his mental and emotional deterioration is revealed, a breakdown precipitated by, among other things, the isolation and despair that his night job brings.

Sound familiar? It's 'Taxi Driver', right? Wrong. The film I'm thinking of, although uncomfortably similar to 'Taxi Driver' in many respects, is in fact Scorsese's latest - 'Bringing out the Dead'.

Based on the novel by John Connelly, it is situated over 3 consecutive nights in Hell's Kitchen, one of the less salubrious quarters of Manhattan. The timeline is the early 1990s. Nicholas Cage plays Frank Pierce, an ambulance driver struggling with internal demons that have him tumbling towards emotional collapse. The source of this inner turbulence is the accumulation of several years exposure to the stark reality that is life as a NY ambulance driver. But in particular what has Pierce so shook up over these 3 days is the recurring ghost figure of Rosie, a teenage down and out, who died a few months before on one of his callouts. He could have saved her is the unsettling message from his conscience. Counter-balancing such gravity are generous chunks of carbon-black humour, provided not least by Pierce's colleagues (played by John Goodman, Tom Sizemore and a very spirited Ving Rhames). One evening he meets Mary (Cage's real-life wife Particia Arquette) while saving her father from a cardiac conundrum. Mary, who has her own bungled baggage to contend with, enters Pierce's fold and provides an emotional crutch in an attempt to lift him from sure meltdown.

With his regular team assembled around him - Barbara De Fina producing, Thelma Schoonmaker on the editing suite and Robert Richardson directing the photography - Scorsese succeeds again to drag the viewer through the dark underbelly of New York's streets, all the time keeping the viewer perversely fascinated by the raw edges of humanity that pepper the scenes. Schrader's emotive script provides actors with the material to dispense quite involving performances. Then there's Scorsese's affecting use of contemporary music. It's not the blatant need-to-have-a-soundtrack-pull-in-more-bucks bunch of tunes that we have come to know and despise elsewhere. The carefully chosen music provides the final revealing brushstrokes to complete the film's visual score - judicious chunks of REM, the Clash, Nirvana and, most notably,  Van Morrison's 'TB Sheets', which undergoes a mini-renaissance in the context of dark Manhattan.

But despite all this I couldn't help but think that here was a jigsaw missing a few pieces. Maybe it was Cage's performance, too often characterised by that same mope that should have been put to rest after it transformed 'Leaving Las Pluto13Vegas'. Here it lives on and is overplayed to such an extent that close ups of Cage's face reminded me often of - dare I say it - Disney's canine friend Pluto. Or maybe it's the fact that Scorsese chose to riddle too many of the film's scenes with appearances of dead Rosie's ghost, quickly diluting any potential for this dramatic device to find resonance. Or maybe it is simply because it resembles Taxi Driver too often.

The overall impression was of a film striving for some great place of redemption and catharsis but, despite the earnest efforts of its creators, landing somewhat short. Nonetheless this is an honest piece of film-making, one that refuses to pander to the whims of Hollywood Execs who would have called for more superficial spectacle and banal gloss. That in itself is ample reason to make the effort to see a good, if imperfect, movie. It is one that will reward the viewer but, unfortunately, not as much as it could have.

Eoghan O'Neill

(bullet) 'Bringing out the Dead' went on general release in Ireland on Jan 7th, 2000.

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