The Common Good
January-February 2000

Not Quite Dead Yet

by Judy Coode | January-February 2000

The harsh glare of life on the streets.

Frank Pierce is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Called to be a healer as a paramedic, he finds himself hammered down by the intense suffering that he witnesses every night, suffering that he cannot, despite his training, control or alleviate.

In Martin Scorsese’s new film, Bringing Out the Dead, based on Joe Connelly’s novel of the same name, Nicolas Cage brings Frank Pierce to life, if you can call an existence devoid of hope and joy a life. The movie is set in the early 1990s, during a period of virulent drug wars, several years before Rudolph Guiliani’s tough-on-crime policy tightened its grip on New York City.

Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who teamed up for films such as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, have created another film about a lonely, conflicted creature who struggles mightily with the demands placed on him. Clearly Frank Pierce is different from Travis Bickle, the manic title character of Taxi Driver, in that Frank, despite the craziness around him, is not psychotic (yet). He’s a bit more similar to Jesus of Nazareth: He thinks he’s supposed to possess healing powers, but in Frank’s case, the powers have deserted him. He’s frustrated to realize that his role is simply to be a "grief mop."

Not only has he not been able to save anyone in six months, he is constantly haunted by those people who have died under his care, particularly a young woman named Rose. Her face is on every person he passes by, speaking to him, asking him why he let her die. He barely endures each shift, cringing every time a call comes through from the dispatcher. Frank is ready to go over the edge, and there is little left to his life that will catch him when he falls.

The only glimpse of light in Frank’s life is Mary Burke (played by Patricia Arquette, Cage’s wife), the daughter of a heart attack victim brought to the hospital at the beginning of the film. Mary is bewildered and delicate, unsure of how she’s supposed to react to her father’s illness after years of estrangement. She gives voice to Frank’s embedded disgust with the barbarity that surrounds him. It’s Mary who asks, why is the emergency room such a mess, why are the hospital staff so inhumane to patients and their families, why is there no compassion?

Frank receives little support from his co-workers. He tries to get fired through chronic tardiness and absenteeism, but his supervisor is so desperate for workers he won’t let Frank go. Fellow paramedics include Larry (John Goodman), who wants to ignore incoming calls but envisions starting his own paramedic service; Major Tom (Tom Sizemore), more frightening and violent than most of the people on the street; and Marcus (Ving Rhames), who tells Frank he’ll break through his mental instability if he simply accepts the fact that he will see the ghosts.

Each character possesses seemingly incompatible traits. For instance, Marcus, a veteran paramedic, considers evangelization a key piece of his job and takes every opportunity to remind Frank and their patients that what they really need is Jesus. His faith is simple and true, although it appears his earnest and experienced inspection of prostitutes doesn’t contradict his beliefs, nor is he beyond a little showmanship to spread the word. When Frank and Marcus respond to a cardiac arrest at a goth dance club, they fall into what seems to be their regular routine. As Frank works speedily to inject a remedy into the young man who has overdosed on Red Death, the dangerous drug du jour, Marcus convinces the spiky-haired, black-garbed witnesses to join hands and pray to Jesus for their friend’s recovery.

The film is framed with light and music. Larry and Frank wear halos when they try to save Mary Burke’s father, the streets are full of frenetic taillights and neon signs, and Frank is bathed in a gentle white light at the end of the film. The personalities of his fellow paramedics are accentuated with a distinct soundtrack: Van Morrison plays while Frank rides with Larry, the Clash is pounding while Frank endures Major Tom’s frenzied quest for blood, and Motown music is the background for Marcus’s shifts.

This is not an easy film to watch. Despite some funny exchanges, the brutality of the streets, the constant barrage of verbal and physical violence, and the explicit exposure of society in the pits are hard to take. Not only are there plenty of people on the streets who need physical care and especially competent mental health care, there are many professionals who are as unstable as the people they are supposed to care for. I found myself several times wishing this two-hour film would hurry up and end, wishing the scenes would stop.

Scorsese and Schrader ask many questions: How much suffering can someone endure and remain sane? Where is the line between fighting for a life and accepting a death? Why does someone who has saved lives, who’s felt that God-power surge through him, lose that power? Where is God in the blood-soaked streets? Bringing Out the Dead doesn’t provide any easy answers. —Judy Coode

JUDY COODE is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

Bringing Out the Dead. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 1/1/99.

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