Bringing Out The Dead, Scorcese’s fourth collaboration with Paul Schrader, presents the tragedy of a guilt-addled paramedic in a city where suffering is not only cyclical and permanent but patiently brewing barely beneath each person. The streets are flooded with ghosts, Our Lady of Misery, the hospital where each night ends, is overflowing. Frank Pierce is a reluctant Christ-figure: saving lives chains him to responsibility as he digs through the city night after night, hoping to rediscover the feeling of bringing back the dead. Saving a life is akin to falling in love.
Nicolas Cage’s Pierce is in a unique position to experience the suffering of others, being thrown repeatedly into the most painful moments of people’s lives, and knowing he doesn’t have the tools to save any more than ten percent of them.
“After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply turned up.”
Each of his 3 coworkers with whom he spends a night in the ambulance have different methods of relieving themselves of the responsibility he shoulders. Larry grows indifferent, the job is the job. Marcus lets lives and deaths each be natural extensions of God’s will, freeing himself to reject responsibility for failures and revel in successes. Tom becomes part of the violence. Drinking and drug fueled ambulance drives contain some of the film’s most beautiful, exhausting shots. The glow of the lights and Pierce’s white shirt is hazy, and the energy throughout is draining.
When Mary Burke is introduced, trembling and crying above her father’s breathless body, she appears both to Pierce and the audience to only be another set of hopeful eyes that weigh on his mind. When Mr. Burke starts breathing, she becomes something else entirely. Brain damage is likely, he’s resuscitated dozens of times, and yet he assures her he’ll be okay. Her relationship with her father was dead, but the possibility of his death is unbearable. Pierce adopts preventing Mary’s suffering as a purpose. He brings dinner, talks to her, and – after he loses another patient – when she returns to drugs to deal with the situation, bursts into her dealer’s “oasis” to do what he thinks is saving her. When blocked from doing so, and offered a release, he chooses to hallucinate but upon seeing the people he allowed to die immediately recoils and screams, grabbing Mary and leaving. The stark detachment of the camera in this tripping sequence emphasizes the one thing Pierce can not be, useless. When he feels separated from the world, he feels he is failing it. This Catholic guilt is the force that battles with his exhaustion for the duration of the film. He crashes on her couch.
The ghosts of his hallucination, both in the dealer Cy’s apartment and caused by nightly exhaustion, are both spirits of regret and motivators of his actions. His hatred of the powerlessness he feels in being unable to save those he wants to, and who want to be saved, is contradicted by his repetitive begging to be fired. If he is forced away from the job, he wouldn’t be guilty, though of course even he knows that would be a short-term solution. In one sequence he pictures himself pulling ghosts out of the pavement, giving them life in an impossible way. Rose, a girl he failed to save, is superimposed onto every stranger.
Pierce, when visiting Mr. Burke’s silent body, hallucinates Burke telling him to let him die, returning to his claim in the opening sequence that the souls that tried to leave wanted free passage, not to be dragged back. He flatlines and Pierce resuscitates him. He holds out hope of he and Mary being able to save each other, and letting him die would kill that chance. He repeats, “You have to keep the body going until the brain and the heart recover enough to go on their own.” In a sense, he is talking about himself as much as he is Burke here. Frank is so frantically trying to clean his soul of others’ suffering that he allows himself to suffer greatly. It’s after this when Frank saves Cy from being impaled on a railing: his first saved life in months feels as random as all the deaths before it. He then saves Noel, an addict and regular at Our Lady of Misery, from Tom, before visiting Burke once more. His voice rings again asking for it to be over, and Pierce complies, breathing for him, living for him to keep the sensors off until he dies. Providing his life to helping those that straddle the line between the worlds of the living and dead affirms that he himself must be breathing to do anything. He goes to Mary and tells her the news she’s been dreading, but her reaction is to immediately care for him. “Nobody told you to suffer,” she says, at first with the face of Rose. “That was your idea.” He doesn’t save a life, but is immediately forgiven. She holds him and the camera repeats the style of the hallucination in Cy’s apartment, but rather than scream, he rests. They both start to glow. Bringing Out The Dead is rather plotless. It is not interested in a beginning, middle, and ending that would tie the cycle of suffering off at a point, only in displaying the constant acceleration of suffering for one who takes responsibility for the suffering of others. The editing is the primary factor, alongside Cage’s performance, in showing the intense exhaustion of this life. Moving from interior ambulance shots that cut at increasing speeds to moving street shots in fast motion, the flow of time is surreal and uncontrollable. The ending is a sobering resolution that rejects resolution; it insists that suffering for others is a choice, but questions the grounds on which we’d deny it and the world we’d leave for each other if we did. Devotion to others doesn’t have an end. Bringing Out The Dead is a harrowing ride, but an extremely thought provoking and beautiful one as well.