Wide, tortured eyes dart wildly from side-to-side, bathed in the disorienting flash of multicolored lights. Sound familiar? Well, these eyes don’t belong to Robert De Niro; they belong to Nicolas Cage. And this isn’t Taxi Driver; it’s Bringing Out the Dead—a film that can’t seem to escape the earlier Scorsese/Schrader collaboration’s long, long shadow.
That’s a shame, because Cage’s character, burned-out EMT Frank Pierce, is such a classic, compelling Scorsese protagonist. Like Bickle, like Jake LaMotta, like Charlie, he obsessively searches for redemption. Cursed with the touch of death, he drifts through a personal Hell of insomnia, self-medication, and haunting visions of the patients he’s lost. He’s desperate to experience the transcendent elation of saving a life again—even if that life has to be his own (when Wizard observed that a man eventually “becomes his job,” he probably had Frank on his mind).
Scorsese, ever the auteur, does manage to season the picture with moments of devastating cinematic beauty. Consider, for example, Frank’s nightmarish, hallucinatory (drug-induced) recollection of his failure to rescue Rose, a homeless eighteen-year-old: Scorsese obviously instructed his actors to perform their movements backwards, and later reversed the footage. Thus, the snow rises back into the overcast sky and the paramedics dance like marionettes on strings, lending the pivotal scene an ethereal, hypnotic rhythm that cuts to the heart of Frank’s trauma and despair.
But Scorsese’s insistence on imitating the artist he was back in 1976 makes it impossible to untangle Bringing Out the Dead from Taxi Driver’s legacy. Like a little boy dressing up in his older brother’s clothes, it assaults the viewer with the familiar oppressive imagery—the thick pillars of stygian steam billowing up from the sewers, the blinding glare of neon reflecting off the perpetually rain-slick road, the slow-motion stride of the destitute streetwalkers—but fails to capture the same sense of urgency, immediacy, and raw power. Its appeals to our fond memories of a twenty-three-year-old movie only ensure it will fall short of our expectations; by trying too hard to become something it’s not, it underestimates its own merit, and thus ultimately diminishes its own worth. It may be a good film… but it’s not Scorsese good.
[Originally written March 4, 2012.]