Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of The Wolf Of Wall Street, we look back on a few of Scorsese’s most underrated movies.
Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
Unlike the operatic gangster epics Goodfellas, Gangs Of New York, and Casino, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead takes place in the margins of urban life—not dissimilar to the space occupied by Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) isn’t quite as antisocial as his cab-driving ancestor; he has a respectable job as an EMT that puts him in regular contact with people all over Hell’s Kitchen. But any surface normality falls away as the movie dives deeper into his purgatorial life. The aftermath of violence surrounds him on the streets, and the hospital emergency room where he drops patients isn’t much calmer; the only real difference is that four walls surround the chaos there.
The Taxi Driver parallels don’t end with the gritty urban milieu: Reuniting with Scorsese for the first time since that ’70s milestone, screenwriter Paul Schrader adapts a novel by real-life medic Joe Connelly. The early-’90s setting was recent past at the time of the film’s release; distance makes it feel even more hallucinatory and vital. Working night shifts, unable to sleep, and desperate to be fired, Frank is haunted by the ghosts of the many people he’s failed to save. Cage, head often cocked and bearing a hulking, half-stooped posture, has only a few bursts of trademark nuttiness, leaving the bigger flourishes to his two partners, Tom Sizemore and Ving Rhames. (John Goodman is the third and least manic.)
Cage doesn’t need to go over the top when Scorsese injects such feverish energy into his filmmaking. Cinematographer Robert Richardson distorts the flashing lights of traffic and ambulances into blown-out white halos around the people in the streets, while Scorsese’s rock ’n’ roll soundtrack—from the reverbed guitar line of R.E.M.’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” to Van Morrison’s harmonica—blares like sirens. One of the movie’s most memorably wacked-out images finds drug dealer Cliff Curtis impaled on a balcony fence, teetering from a high-rise as the sparks from a blowtorch dissolve into fireworks over the Manhattan skyline. For all the despair on display, the movie is sometimes sickly funny.
Cage’s glancing connection with Patricia Arquette doesn’t exactly light the screen on fire, but she’s mostly there to provide relief, however tenuous: a shot of them sitting together in the back of an ambulance is one of the calmest in the film. Their scenes accentuate the way that Scorsese makes Bringing Out The Dead simultaneously mournful and amped—an unsung achievement from one of the greats.
Availability: Bringing Out The Dead is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.