I'm sure this is something that has happened to many film buffs, you watch a film and are very impressed, it makes it's way onto your list of favourites and you recommend it with enthusiasm to other film buffs, only to find that upon viewing it they dislike it or don't think much of it. This happens often and you get the sense this is a highly underrated film. Thus your love for the film grows even more as you feel you have to defend it against all this seemingly unjust criticism.
This is what happened to me after watching Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead.
One would think that a Scorsese film would hardly classify as an overlooked or forgotten gem, but this one does. It is nowhere near as loved or as widely known as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and yet I think it deserves to be placed alongside all those great films. It truly is one of Scorsese's many masterpieces.
This film stars Nic Cage in what is one of his finest performances. He filmed this as part of a three film contract that included Face/Off (excellent John Woo action film) and Snake Eyes (promising but ultimately very disappointing thriller from De Palma), Bringing Out The Dead is the best of these three films.
It also stars Patricia Arquette who at this time was at the height of her career, filming this film as well as True Romance (1992), Ed Wood (1994) and Lost Highway (1997). She's a talented enough actress that sadly has done many, many terrible films.
The rest of the cast is made up of various talented actors such as Ving Rhames (none other than Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction), John Goodman and Tom Sizemore.
The performance that deserves the most attention is obviously Cage's for it is one of his best and is truly haunting.
But it is not only in the physical representation of his character that Cage excels, it is also at communicating the inner sufferings of his character, which are numerous. Haunted is the most frequent word used to describe this performance and it is probably the most fitting, for the character in the film is literally haunted by his past and by his present.
I can imagine that such a role must of been very demanding and it saddens me to see Cage get such little recognition for it, indeed some even dare say he is a terrible actor.
I think the film can be suitably summarised just by explaining Cage's character.
Frank is a paramedic, he does the job through some sense of duty, some inability to stop, however painful and ultimately auto-destructive it is, he cannot give it up, even if he has not saved someone for near on a year and is constantly haunted by a young woman whose death he blames upon himself. He spirals out of control and briefly into insanity, accompanied by various other equally strange colleagues. His life is getting worse and worse, his wife has left, he is overworked and constantly exposed to the lowest levels of society, he is becoming unravelled. That is until he meets Mary, they are equally messed up and befriend each other in depressing circumstances, hopefully they will be able to help each other to sort themselves out, or will they continue the downward spiral? The film leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
As well as having an emotionally powerful and quite simply gripping and unique story, the film is also excellently made. However powerful the stories have been in his films, Scorsese has never been one to dispense with fancy camera-work and at least a handful of great shots. Here, the direction plays a large part in keeping this film dynamic and engaging, if it had been some other less active director I'm afraid this film would have fallen flat and been a complete failure, Scorsese perfectly captures the atmosphere, creates weird moments of Dark Comedy and some shots that stayed in my mind for long afterwards, the whole atmosphere reminded me of a more polished version of Taxi Driver, he's such an incredibly talented director. And he even manages to slip in one of his ever present cameo's! (as a radio dispatcher).
The Dark Comedy is indeed very much in the forefront of this film, much more so than say Taxi Driver. Dark Comedy is by far my favourite kind of comedy and I have to admit that many things in this film made me laugh, and yet this doesn't take away from the more dramatic scenes,instead it intensifies them, for to have a mixture of comedy and tragedy is far closer to life than any ting else and thus renders this film so much more real. I strongly believe that had this been an all out comedy it would have been atrocious yet had it been solely dramatic it would have been unbearable, thus it strikes the balance between the two, as does life.
Not everyone recognises it as the masterpiece it is though, many even disliked it. If I remember correctly most of the criticism directed at this film was concerned with the script, many said it was aimless, had no clear plot line and an unsatisfying end.
I find the majority of this criticism to be unfounded, for a start the script was a flawless adaptation of the book of the same name written by Joe Connelly and based of his real life experiences as a paramedic. And it doesn't need to follow a clear plot line for all it shows is three days in the life of one paramedic...
I don't believe that life has a clear plot line and that is all this film was trying to show, not some mindbendingly complex tale or some thriller with a twist ending nor some predictable romantic comedy or revenge story. It belongs to that genre of films that some people call a "slice of life", Mike Leigh's films for example could be placed in this genre very satisfactorily.
Some have called the film lethargic, I can't agree with this at all, I thought it was a dynamic film that was over far to quickly, of course it does have it's slow scenes and the plot does wander with no clear goal, but I think this aptly reflects the main character of the film.
This paramedic named Fran is based upon Joe Conelly's real life experiences as a paramedic in the Manhattan area. I would highly recommend the book of the same name as this film, not exceptionally written but has an important tale to tell.
Frank's job as a paramedic leads him to view the lowest humanity has to offer, from prostitutes, to junkies to gangsters, alcoholics and insane people. Thus Bringing Out The Dead shares many similarities with another of Scorsese's collaborations with Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver. I can certainly see why they would of been drawn towards the book and eventually adapted it into a film.
For it deals with New York, Scorsese favourite city to film, and it also contains a theme which he has proven to be particularly fond of, that of redemption.
I mentioned that this film was based on a book, I have read this book and I must say that even though I often find the films adapted from pieces of literature to be incomplete and flawed, but one film stands out as the best adaptation I've ever seen, and by best I mean the most faithful to the source material not the actual quality of the film or the novel. And that film is Martin Scorsese's and Paul Schrader's adaptation of Joe Connelly's Bringing Out The Dead.
Many lines of dialogue are lifted directly out of the book without any altering whatsoever. This is rare for book adaptations.
Only one sub-plot was left out of the film (involving Frank's wife), and while it was quite important in the book, I can understand why the script writers decided to leave it out entirely, it's better than attempting to fit it in where it doesn't belong.
It is such a shame this film bombed so badly at the box office (55 million budget, 16 million gross) even if it has become a cult film over time, it still remains terrible overlooked and underrated. I believe it is essential viewing for all fans of Scorsese, it ranks among his best films.
All in all Bringing Out The Dead is a hard film to classify or review, it does lack a narrative structure but this doesn't other me, for Scorsese has achieved something amazing with this film, a powerfully disturbing film that is actually engaging and fascinating to watch. It does not repel you as some films of this type tend to, instead it draws you in and takes you on an unforgettable ride.
This isn't my best review, I realise it's a bit to one sided, I should have delved into the films few problems as well but I felt that this should be an overwhelmingly positive review, a way to encourage people to see it and at least give it some of the praise it deserves.I also didn't won't to reveal to much about it so I have left much unsaid, I strongly believe that one should only read enough to get interested in the film, not to completely understand and analyse the film before even seeing.
Check out Ebert's review, we agree yet again.