Nobody Told You To Suffer

On Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

illustration by Tom Ralston

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

—Milan Kundera

It’s all in the eyes. What they see, what they’ve seen. From the opening frames of Bringing Out the Dead, Nicolas Cage’s eyes are front and center, his weary, haunted visage—a near ghost of the face he was typically presenting at the time—telling you most everything you need to know about his character’s internal state. And while Bringing Out the Dead is ultimately about many things—suffering, guilt, trauma, compassion, redemption—it’s those eyes, throughout the film and long afterwards, that stay with you. They’ve seen so much, but processed so little.

And perhaps that look feels more than a bit familiar these days? A whole lot of us are carrying it around, more or less, half-broken and burned out from living through a global pandemic we’re still nowhere near processing, the breakdown of systems and institutions we’d imagined were unbreakable, immediate exposure to all the world’s tragedies on the small screens in our pockets. If, in 1999, traumatized, sleep-deprived, burned-out New York City paramedic Frank Pierce (Cage) was perhaps some kind of canary in the coal mine, by 2024, he’s most everywhere you look.

Martin Scorsese couldn’t have known this, of course. For him, Bringing Out the Dead was much more personal, the end of a “philosophical cycle” of sorts, both as a person and an artist. He was making a film set in contemporary New York for the first time in almost 15 years and reuniting with Paul Schrader—the screenwriter he’d collaborated with on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ—for the first time in over a decade, adapting a novel by real-life paramedic Joe Connelly that would return him to the streets that first made his name nearly 25 years before, armed with the hard-earned wisdom and perspective gleaned from everything he’d experienced since. Scorsese knew that any film he made about a lonely, haunted man driving through New York City at night—especially one written by Schrader—was bound to draw comparisons to their most famous film. “He’s not unlike the taxi driver, but he’s different because he’s on God’s team now,” Schrader said of Frank Pierce in 2015. “Certainly Marty and I were aware that it will be compared to Taxi Driver, so we tried to make it a bookend rather than a remake.”

But Scorsese actually had a much different film in mind by way of comparison. “Scott Rudin sent the galleys to me and I thought, It’s Kundun but in a modern setting.”

To those familiar with Kundun (1997), this might seem a bit odd, at least at first. Released just two years before Bringing Out the Dead (and two years after Casino), Kundun is one of Scorsese’s most spiritual, sumptuous, and fascinating films, as well as one of his least successful and still woefully underseen pictures—a biography of two decades in the life of the young Dalai Lama. And on the surface, it can certainly be hard to square any kind of comparison between Frank Pierce—a haunted, harried, and broken paramedic—with one of the most enlightened human beings on earth. But to Scorsese, who has repeatedly drawn this connection in interviews over the ensuing 25 years, the two films are intricately linked. “Despite everything, I keep thinking I can find a way to lead the spiritual life,” he told Roger Ebert in 2004. “When I made The Last Temptation of Christ, when I made Kundun, I was looking for that. Bringing Out the Dead was the next step. Time is moving by. I’m aware of that.” 

Disappointed with the poor reception of Kundun—a film he’d poured his heart and soul into, only to have it be the least distributed, least successful studio picture he’d ever made, due to circumstances well beyond his control—Scorsese was returning to much more familiar terrain, at least on paper, and seemed poised for a return to the kind of filmmaking he’d become famous for. But the 56-year-old who made Bringing Out the Dead was a much different person than the 33-year-old who’d made Taxi Driver; though he was revisiting plenty of the same themes that had driven his earlier films, he was coming at them from a much different place in his life.

“That’s why Kundun is so important to me,” he told Richard Schickel. “It’s about the changes in you as a person, as a filmmaker, whatever; the change in your body, the change in your heart and your soul as you grow and embrace new ideas.”

Oh, and there’s also this: one of Scorsese’s favorite lines in the film occurs when Frank reflects on the real work he’s performing each night. “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 showed up.” 

And in Tibetan, kundun means presence.

*

Late night wind howls over the distant sounds of a siren. An organ ignites in warm-up whirls as drums kick and snare and crash their way towards a beat. Minor chords descend over a rising drum roll until the scattered sounds come together and resolve. A rollicking groove locks in, at the exact moment a title card appears on screen:

A
MARTIN SCORSESE
Picture

Van Morrison’s immensely propulsive, existentially devastating “T.B. Sheets” kicks off in earnest as we see a brief shot of an ambulance careening through the city streets, lights swirling and sirens (Van’s harmonica) wailing, before a quick cut to a closeup of Cage’s eyes as he drives, the red and white lights reflecting off his face. The credits continue, a murderer’s row of talent— Elmer Bernstein composing, Thelma Schoonmaker editing, production designer Dante Ferretti, director of photography Robert Richardson. We see Cage’s eyes again, a quick cut inserted between the final two credits: Schrader and Scorsese.

In voiceover, Frank ponders the three nights of work in front of him in Hell’s Kitchen, and the burnout he’s already mired in. “Things had turned bad,” he intones while driving. “I hadn’t saved anyone in months. I just needed a few slow nights, followed by a couple of days off.” As if on cue, the dispatcher’s voice—Scorsese’s voice, actually—comes over the radio; Frank and Larry (John Goodman), his partner for the night, head towards a walk-up apartment where an elderly man has just had a heart attack. 

They move up several flights of stairs, pass lookers-on, enter the apartment, and go to work trying to save a life. This one, though, seems past saving; after several attempts to revive him, the man flatlines. Frank, continuing the chest compressions as Larry leaves to call it in, looks up at the dying man’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), and simply says “Sorry.” She remains tearfully silent, until he suggests that they put on some music that her father likes. She tells her family to put on the Sinatra, and  “The September of My Years” begins to play as Frank continues CPR. Moments later, he finds a pulse. Mr. Burke’s heart is beating again. Unresponsive but alive, they prepare to take him in the ambulance to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital.

“Is he gonna be alright?” Mary asks.

“His heart’s beating,” Frank replies. The look in his eyes, though, betrays what he likely already knows: Mr. Burke—or at least the man he was just an hour ago—is all but gone.

*

Frank Pierce is essentially an addict, hooked on saving lives, a drug that serves as a distraction from the (literal) ghosts that haunt him—in particular a teenage girl named Rose, whom he blames himself for not being able to save, and whose face now appears to him most everywhere—and simultaneously offers him a sense of meaning, purpose, and a taste of the divine

The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn’t feel the earth—everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you’ve become immortal, as if you’ve saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there—why deny for a moment there, God was you?

The problem is, Frank hasn’t saved anybody in a long, long time, and his spiritual balance is way past off. He’s tired, but can’t sleep; he needs time off, but his boss refuses to fire him. He’s drinking too much, taking in too much pain, losing perspective and running on adrenaline, trying to save everybody, trying to save himself. None of it seems to be working. For decades, depression, anxiety, and PTSD rates have been much higher among EMS workers than the general population; Frank seems to be experiencing all three at once, with no support system or end in sight, and still the work goes on.

Bringing Out the Dead is episodic rather than plot-driven—“Marty hates plots,” his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has said—so rather than guiding us through a linear, three act narrative, the film instead plays out largely as a series of vignettes, charting three days and nights in Frank’s life as he tries to navigate a city, and a job, that feels as if it’s coming apart at the seams. He can’t save everybody and these days, it seems like he can’t save anybody. The guilt, as it so often does in Scorsese films, weighs heavily on him as he careens from call to call, trauma to trauma, searching for redemption or at least some kind of relief.

*

There’s an argument that shows up on social media not infrequently, about which of Martin Scorsese’s many films qualify as “top-tier Scorsese.” Admittedly, it’s a tough task to sort through, as his filmography is about as good as filmographies get, and even those films not appreciated upon release (The King of Comedy and After Hours certainly come to mind) have eventually been reappraised over time. And while Bringing Out the Dead found some admirers in 1999—Roger Ebert considered it Scorsese’s best film of the decade—it ultimately never connected with audiences or most critics. Throw in the lack of studio support, and a marketing campaign that sold the film as something much different than it actually was, and the movie bombed, playing in theaters for only a few weeks and making only half its budget back. 

In the past several years, though, a small groundswell of support has started growing around the film, and its reputation is slowly but surely rising—from worth another look? to underappreciated? to when is Criterion going to add this to the collection?! Some critics who initially disregarded the film have come around on it, and during the pandemic, some fans began connecting with it more than ever. Cage is still talking about it, too. “I really believe that that is one of my best movies. I was in-between Snake Eyes and National Treasure, and I thought it was the most unusual style of filmmaking,” he said in an interview just last year. “It was perhaps the most abstract I’ve seen Martin Scorsese get with his style, and for me as well. But I think it was misinterpreted.” 

And Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked on every Scorsese film since Raging Bull, has been talking about it—and waiting for it to be recognized as top-tier Scorsese—for years. “[Bringing Out the Dead] was about compassion, and it was sold, I think, as a car chase movie,” she said in 2016. “We made [Bringing Out The Dead] after Kundun, and of course the Dalai Lama’s big thing is compassion—it’s a word he uses in almost every sentence. And so it’s a beautiful film, but it was hard for people to take, I think. Unexpected. But I think it’s great.”

*

In the film’s final seven minutes, compassion moves to the fore, not in the ways we were expecting, perhaps, but in a way that underscores both the central themes of Bringing Out the Dead and the director’s draw to them, providing an effective ‘bookend’ to Taxi Driver and a kind of acceptance and closure that seemingly allowed him to move on; in the 25 years since the film’s release, Martin Scorsese has never made another contemporary film set in New York City.

“Bringing Out the Dead was the end of something that was very special,” he would tell Richard Schickel years later. “I think it had more to do with a philosophical cycle of my own. It had to do with trying to evade the fact that you’re going to die, we’re all going to die.”

Like many Scorsese films, Bringing Out the Dead is filled to the brim with music, but here, near the end, the soundtrack goes silent—no songs, no score, just the sound of Frank’s footsteps as he walks down an empty hall at Our Lady of Mercy, looking for Mr. Burke, the man whose life he “saved” three days ago. He’s being kept alive by machines, having never once regained consciousness. He’s coded 17 times at the hospital, the doctors and defibrillator bringing him back to life each time. Like Rose and the many other ghosts in the film, he’s been talking to Frank. The night before, after coding while Frank was checking on him, he begged not to be brought back to life and swore at Frank’s efforts to save him.

The silence continues for nearly a full minute, save for when Frank asks a nurse where Mr. Burke has been moved to. It’s one of the quietest scenes in the entire film, a respite from the chaos it’s previously been filled with. When he finds Mr. Burke, we notice Cage’s eyes again as they take in the man being kept artificially alive by the various machines in the room. The camera holds on his face, on the weary compassion in his eyes as they watch for five silent seconds—until Mr. Burke’s spirit breaks the silence:

Let me go.”

Frank disconnects him from the machines, hooking them up to himself, and then—in one of the film’s more striking images—begins breathing through the ventilator as well, while allowing Mr. Burke to peacefully pass away. Moments later, when doctors rush in and try to revive him, the camera holds on Cage’s face for nearly ten seconds, on those eyes, bearing witness.

Frank agrees to tell the family, which in this case means notifying Mary, whom he’s grown close to—at least as much as that’s possible for him—over the past few days. He leaves the hospital, passing the last and most unhinged of his three partners (Tom Sizemore), who is busy smashing the front of their ambulance with a baseball bat in the early morning light, and walks quietly to Mary’s apartment. When she opens the door, he tells her that her father has passed, that he coded too many times, that he’s sorry. As she processes the news, he says it one more time, the third and final time in the film: I’m sorry. At that moment, Mary’s face turns into Rose’s, the girl he still blames himself for not saving.

“Forgive me Rose,” he finally states to her ghost, to his failings, to his guilt.

“It’s not your fault,” she softly replies in absolution, before offering one of the film’s most haunting and poignant lines: “No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.”

Mary’s face returns at the door, asking if he’d like to come in. Frank, in the film’s final line of dialogue, says yes. He walks into her apartment, the door closing behind him. A quick screen wipe fades into a silent, mostly still frame—one of the most powerful images in any Scorsese movie—a perfect and graceful resolution to Frank’s long day’s journey into night. Over the course of the film’s final minute, he lies on Mary’s bed, resting his head against her chest as she rubs his shoulder, eventually placing her hand on his head. Bernstein’s melancholic score rises slowly on the soundtrack as the morning light begins to pour in through the window, until the two are nearly bathed in white light. 

Finally, unburdened, Frank closes his eyes, and sleeps.