Director David Lean always said that if a screenplay contained five great scenes, then he could turn it into a great movie. By that rationale, Martin Scorsese’s 1999 film ‘Bringing Out The dead’ should feature regularly in those ubiquitous ‘all time greatest movie’ lists. Yet it rarely gets a mention in a top 5 list of Scorsese films. This is a travesty. Because BOTD doesn’t have five great scenes. It has seven, and the rest aren’t bad either.
Too often dismissed as an inferior retread of Taxi Driver (substituting an ambulance for a taxi), BOTD is, from the get-go, a mind-shattering assault on the senses. But one that feels nice. A case in point; the very first shot of the movie, as the ambulance being driven by Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage, perfectly cast as the frazzled protagonist) comes screaming round a corner and into frame. But get this; instead of the sound of tyres screeching, we get a screeching harmonica courtesy of Van Morrison, perfectly synched in time with the visuals.
Effectively, this is Scorsese saying to us; “You liked how I used music in Goodfellas, right? Well, check this out.” Later on, he’ll use UB40’s ‘Red Red Wine’ to soundtrack the sight of some dying goldfish flapping about on a carpet in the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Not to mention ‘Janie Jones’ by The Clash in a virtuoso sequence where the camera flips upside down as Frank’s soon-to-crash ambulance goes hurtling past.
And then there’s the haunting, hallucinatory dream sequence where Frank literally brings out the dead, pulling the spectral forms of the people whose lives he failed to save from up out of the sidewalk. And the sweet, tender, wordless scene where, escorting her dying mother to the hospital, he coyly flirts with Patricia Arquette’s world weary not-quite-a-hooker Mary. And the bit where a delirious gunshot victim lies impaled on a metal railing thirty floors up, mistaking the sparks from the rescue team’s wreckage cutting equipment for a gigantic fireworks display over Manhattan.
Does all this amount to style over substance? Not entirely. As a character study of a man whose job is slowly chipping away at his sanity, BOTD will surely resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves unwittingly trapped in a bill-paying but soul-sucking career. And anyway, after watching a movie this dazzlingly audacious, you’ll be too busy trying to separate the people you see around you from the ghosts in Scorsese’s sad, demented, beautiful film.