Eric D. Snider

Bringing out the Dead

Nicolas Cage has made a career out of playing semi-psychotic losers. Whether they're comical ("Raising Arizona," "Honeymoon in Vegas") or serious (everything else), he has a knack for starting out just slightly off-kilter, and winding up completely deranged. Occasionally, he returns from insanity and rejoins normal society.

"Bringing out the Dead," a visually stimulating but intellectually mediocre film from director Martin Scorsese, is one in which Cage gets to come back again. In fact, if the film is "about" anything (and that's debatable), it's about Cage's character's struggle to forgive himself and to return to himself.

Cage plays Frank Pierce, an EMT who made a mistake and allowed a girl to die. Now, she haunts him -- not in a literal, "Sixth Sense" kind of way, but figuratively. He occasionally sees her face everywhere; other times, he doesn't see her at all.

He's up and down, that Frank, and so is the movie. It takes place in the crazy version of New York City we often see in movies, with the action centering around an over-crowded, unsympathetic hospital and Frank's fellow EMTs, all of whom are also insane in one way or another. The city's crazy, all the people are crazy, and Scorsese's frenetic, rambunctious directorial style is crazy, too.

Yet the film has its calm moments. Lots of them. As Frank struggles with his inner demons, he befriends a girl named Mary (Patricia Arquette) whose father is in the hospital following a heart attack. She leads him to a drug-dealer's apartment, where there is a great deal of peace and quiet -- the best sleep Frank has had in a while. Yet he's plagued by psychotic dreams in which he saves a bunch of lives even while still being haunted.

Should there be a time when everyone should die, when you should just let go? Eventually, that's what the point is here: to let go of the past. As one character tells Frank, "No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea."

Often bathed in white light, like the God that EMTs feel they are when they save lives, Frank is a man thoroughly burnt out with his job, begging to be fired so he can escape his torment. But then he has other moments of sheer humanity, when he wants to -- and still feels he can -- save people, whether that means saving their lives or letting them die.

The dialogue is often darkly funny, but somehow we expect more intelligence and meaning out of Scorsese. For all its flash and substance -- and the film is undeniably interesting -- it really doesn't amount to much.

Cage is strong, as usual, in this role, though the sheer oddness of the film and the look-how-cool-I-am style of the director makes it difficult to connect with him. Even when he arrives at a resolution in his life, about all we can do is shrug our shoulders and say, "Good for him," because we're still busy trying to make sense of the whole meandering thing.

Grade: B-

Rated R, gritty violent content, drug use and language

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Notes:

In 2009, I reconsidered this movie for a column at Film.com.

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