"Bringing Out The Dead" is not for everyone. The movie's lack of a conventional narrative probably confused and alienated many viewers when it first came out in the fall of 1999. The way it uncompromisingly looked into the darkest corners of human nature with an unflinching eye probably didn't help it get any fans either, but these qualities are part of Scorsese's greatest films -- the confusion of "After Hours", the emotional indecision of "The Age of Innocence", the alienation of "Taxi Driver", the spiritual search of "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Kundun" and "Silence." "Bringing Out The Dead" is not easy to watch, and at times it's hard for the average viewer not to look away. But it's real, and it stays with you.
"Bringing Out The Dead" was the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, based from the novel of Joe Connelly, and it touched on their familiar themes of faith, guilt, hope, and redemption. Using Frank (Nicolas Cage) as a lens to the dark and shady corners of New York's 'barrel of humanity', Schrader and Scorsese examined issues they tackled two decades earlier, in"Taxi Driver," such as decay, degeneration and the meaning of death and life in certain respects. Are these poor, miserable, drugged beings crawling the streets at night really alive. This time was New York of early '90s as opposed mid '70s in Taxi Driver.
Schrader's screenplay offers satisfying levels of complexity, so that ultimately, towards the end, when the main protagonist Frank, as played by nicolas Cage, does something totally unexpected and morally ambiguous, we understand exactly why he's doing it and can sympathize.
The film also feels like the last of something in terms of Scorsese's career. It came out in 1999 and felt like a final statement before the clock finally hit midnight into the new century. After "Bringing out the Dead", Scorsese went on to make 6 consecutive Hollywood epics ("Gangs of New York," "The Aviator," "The Departed," "Hugo," "Shutter Island," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Silence") which had him losing touch with the minimal character studies that defined a big portion of his earlier work. You see, I love my Scorsese films in many shapes, sizes and genres, but many forget that, beyond the mob movies and historical epics, he's a master at making these small, intimate, perfectly-toned, pitch black character studies. "After Hours," "The King of Comedy," "Taxi Driver," and, of course, "Bringing out the Dead" feel like a quadrilogy of alienation.
These films will stand the test of time and become more resonant as we continue to further isolate ourselves from the world around us and bury ourselves in the latest batch of gadgets and social networks that come our way. "Bringing out the Dead" feels, 17 years since since its release, like a prophetic wake-up call, a warning for the next generation, a call to stop the madness, take a deep breath and .... reflect.
Long-time Scorsese editor-extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker seems to agree with me as far as "Bringing out the Dead" goes. While promoting her work for Marty's latest picture, "Silence," she's also been, slyly might I add, talking about "Bringing out the Dead," which, it turns out, is one of her very favorite Scorsese films.
First up we have her mentioning the 1999 film to Den of Geek:
[Bringing Out the Dead] is the only one of his films, I think, that hasn't gotten its due - it was a disaster at the box office, as was as was A lot of our movies!
I think there's a cult following for it - it sounds like you're one of them, which is great. But there's a following building. But what happened was, that film was about compassion, and it was sold, I think, as a chase movie. When I saw the trailer I said, "Wait a minute! That's not what the movie's about!" I think people were made nervous by the theme of it, which I think is beautiful. I think it'll get its due.