Frank tells us at the movie's outset that he hasn't saved a life in months, and that he's beginning to believe in things like spirits that leave a body and don't want to come back. He's starting to feel like a "grief mop", like his only real responsibility is to "bear witness" to death and suffering. Frank and his partner Larry (John Goodman) are attempting to resuscitate a heart attack victim as the movie begins, and as the man's daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) looks on in horror, Larry is successful in pulling him back from death's door. The overrun hospital, however, shoves him into a corner and keeps him drugged up, shocking him back to "life" when necessary. Mary tells Frank she hadn't spoken to her father for a long while before his attack, and in fact had often wished he were dead, but that now there's nothing she'd like more that to just hear his voice again. She was once a junkie but has now been clean for months, she tells him. Frank seems moved by Mary, seems to want to "save" her -- perhaps he thinks if he can save her, he will be able to let go of the pain of losing Rose.
Frank's developing feelings for Mary provide a counterpoint to the insanity he encounters on emergency calls with his partners Larry (John Goodman), Marcus (Ving Rhames), and Walls (Tom Sizemore). Sometimes the calls involve merely picking up the local smelly drunk Mr. O, their "most frequent flier" who seems to think the hospital is a nice place to sober up. Other times they involve matters that are much more serious, like resuscitating a heroin OD in a club (a great scene) or assisting in the allegedly virgin birth of twins (haunting, and one of the movie's many examples of religious imagery). But no matter where Frank goes, he sees Roses' face -- he sees her everywhere, she comes to him in the guise of the nameless street people that cross his path.
There really is no plot to "Bringing Out The Dead", and that's a good thing because the movie isn't meant to be a straightforward narrative. It's meant to be a snapshot of a man's soul, of his inner demons, and a conventional plot would only cloud the movie's real point. The narrative thrust comes mostly from Frank's interactions with his partners -- each of them representing a different approach, a different way of dealing with the pain brought on by this nerve wracking job. Larry (Goodman) seems to be able to block out the emotional aspects of his job, he seems to see his position mainly as a means to an end, and in fact he tells Frank he'll be a captain one day. Marcus (Ving Rhames, in a scene stealing performance) puts all trust and faith in God, believing that if someone dies, it's just their time to go. Walls (a scarily effective Tom Sizemore) is a borderline psychotic, terrorizing patients (including dread locked street person Noel, well played by singer Mark Anthony) and bashing in his ambulance headlights with a baseball bat.
If these three provide the kinetic thrust of the movie, Frank and Mary provide it's emotional center. Frank finds himself drawn closer and closer to Mary, and in fact he tries to rescue her when she resorts to visiting scummy drug dealer Cy Coates (the excellent Cliff Curtis) at the Oasis, a scarily shot urban hellhole that seems to be a local haven for drug dealing. She needs some respite, however temporary and narcotic, from the pain, and in this sense she has a link with Frank (who drinks on the job and taps into his own medical supplies to get high). The movie seems to be saying that these two people need each other; perhaps each has what is needed to soothe the other's hurt.
"Bringing Out The Dead" is the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, and it touches on their familiar themes of faith, guilt, hope, and redemption. Much has been written about the similarities between this film and "Taxi Driver", Scorsese's 1976 ode to urban rot. I feel these similarities are somewhat superficial. Though Frank and Travis Bickle are both lonely, disenfranchised, ill people, Frank wants to help people; Bickle just wants to clean the "trash" up off the streets. Bickle lashes out in rage; Frank lashes out in fear and desperation. Schrader's screenplay offers satisfying levels of complexity, so that ultimately, towards the end, when Frank does something totally unexpected and morally ambiguous, we understand exactly why he's doing it and can sympathize.
Of course, from a technical standpoint "Bringing Out The Dead" is flawless. Ace lensman Robert Richardson (who previously worked with Scorsese on "Casino") gives the city an appropriately gloomy, sick look, and his work is especially effective in a scene in which Cy dangles from a sixteenth floor balcony while fireworks explode behind him. Thelma Schoonmaker's expert editing is, as usual, outstanding -- she gives the fast paced scenes the charge they need, and provides some dizzying sped up camera effects during the emergency call scenes. Scorsese's choice of music is great, as is his work with the actors. Sizemore, Anthony, Curtis, Arquette, and especially Rhames are all good, but it's Cage who must hold the movie together, and he succeeds with a towering performance that is easily his best work since "Leaving Las Vegas". Cage is cast perfectly here; his tortured, implosive Frank Pierce is an indelible character.
"Bringing Out The Dead" is not for everyone. The movie's lack of a conventional narrative arc will probably confuse and alienate some viewers, and the way it uncompromisingly looks into the darkest corners of human nature with an unflinching eye will disturb others. Yet these qualities are Scorsese's hallmarks, and this film has links to many of his other works -- 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". "Bringing Out The Dead" is not easy to watch, and at times it's hard not to look away. But it's real, and it stays with you.