BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is one of the best-scripted and directed movies in years. Seminary reject Martin Scorcese and Calvin College graduate Paul Schrader bring all their angst and anger to the big screen once more in the tradition of their previous successful efforts TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. In fact, the film could be called “Raging Ambulance Driver.”
In spite of the quality of the direction, reviewers left the screening saying that they didn’t know where the movie was going and where it arrived at the end. It is easy to understand this because the movie is basically obsessed with the fallen world – a purgatory where even vain appeals to the gospel bring no hope. Thus, the key to unlocking BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is understanding the intensity with which Schrader and Scorcese have rejected their Christian roots.
Nicolas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a burned out ambulance paramedic who just wants to save people (at one point, he is accused of looking like a priest). He is severely depressed by the fact that he hasn’t been able to save anybody in a couple of months, a fact which he repeats in a voice over several times. What is worse is that he feels that his exhausted, fumbling treatment of a young woman drug addict led to her death. Things have gotten so bad for Frank that he sees the ghosts of the people who died in his hands walking the streets of New York, especially the ghost of the young drug addict named Rose, whom he may have killed by putting a tube down the wrong passage.
He knows that every call they get to assist someone who is hurt and dying will end up in disaster because life has turned against him. When he and his partner Larry, played by John Goodman, go to a tenement near where Frank grew up and where Mr. Burke has had a heart attack, he is miraculously able to revive Mr. Burke with a little music and electric shock. In the process, Frank is smitten with Mr. Burke’s daughter Mary (played by Patricia Arqeutte), who is also taken with him because he just revived her father. Once in the hospital, Mr. Burke continues to have heart attacks and continues to respond to the defibrillators.
Even so, Frank still wants to be fired, but there is a shortage of paramedics so his ambulance company won’t fire him. Consequently, he rages against the city. He takes hemoglobin to recover from his depression. He smokes cigarettes to kill the pain. He drinks whisky and gin to forget what he is doing.
Just as depressed by her father’s condition, Mary Burke goes back to a drug den. Frank follows her and has a bad trip, but the drugs turn his depression into a newfound intensity and finally lead to an act of conscience, which sells murder as compassion.
Very few movies have been so well produced. The visual images, the audio, the acting, the script, the characterizations are superb. Regrettably, one of the paramedics is a preacher who pretends to raise people from the dead by appealing vociferously to Jesus, while Frank injects them with antidotes for their overdose. This paramedic preacher is also preoccupied, in between his gospel ramblings, with sex, showing wads of money to prostitutes and lecherously describing the female dispatcher’s desire for him. At one point, Frank even says that he once saw God in someone, but realized it was just a vision. Therefore, in the midst of this purgatory, there is no hope even amongst the hypocritical faithful.
That is not to say that there is not a lot of gospel in here, including many pictures of Jesus and Mary and many statements about the gospel. There is, however, a fine line between presenting the Good News and reviling it. A few Christians will find this movie full of parables and worth watching, but ultimately it sells death and the brief glimmer of hope is only the shimmering image of two people giving up together.
What BRINGING OUT THE DEAD really does is make a case for Martin Scorcese and Paul Schrader finding the Truth that will set them free from their depressed, nihilistic worldview. There is much compassion in here. There are many attempts to love. Yet, ultimately all is futile and hopeless. In Mr. Scorcese and Mr. Schrader’s view, everyone is a ghost, everyone is dead and dying, and they portray an insight into the lost nature of man, but without seeing the hope of Jesus Christ. Clearly, that is because Frank wants to be a savior himself, or he is looking for God in other people rather than in Jesus Christ.
Christians need to help others understand that other people will always let you down. If you looked for God in Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggert, you were looking in the wrong place. The reason that people need Jesus Christ is that they are fallen. Sanctification is a life-long process. Christians are under construction. They make mistakes. They may even appear to be hypocrites. The Good News is that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son to give everyone and anyone, no matter how wretched, who believes in Jesus eternal life and an unshakable hope in a glorious future wherein their sins have been washed away by the blood that Jesus shed on Calvary. Anyone, including Martin and Paul, can be born again and live, not die.
The antidote to this movie is the one thing these two genius’s rejected. They rejected it in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and they continue to reject it. It is the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ that truly brings out the dead into new life.
Nihilistic worldview with a great deal of moral, Christian & anti-Christian content; 75 obscenities & 16 profanities; extreme violence including pulling the plug on a patient & paramedics encounter drug overdoses, shootings, heart attacks, beatings, & impaling, all accompanied by tons of blood & gore; a kiss on the cheek, images of prostitutes working the streets & mild discussions of sex; nude man in dream sequence (no genitalia shown) & people in hospital smocks; alcohol use; smoking, continual drug use & drug overdose; and, attempted suicide, anger, rage, & deception.