By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
If you thought Travis Bickle defined the existential crisis of urban America, come stagger to the millennium with New York paramedic Frank Pierce. Together again, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have tortured a novel by former ambulance attendant Joe Connelly into a sequel, of sorts, to Taxi Driver. Like Travis, Frank (Nicolas Cage) is possessed by the soul-searching insomniac’s craving for sleep. Except that Frank‘s hubris is fueled not by paranoia, but by the massive guilt complex of a kindly savior. His predicament is that the world he inhabits -- a filthy, crack-infested Hell’s Kitchen in the early ‘90s, before New York took up its bed and walked under the aegis of that compulsive cleaner-upper Rudy Giuliani -- seems beyond salvation, and very likely Frank, wrecked from endless futile all-nighters, along with it.
Raising the dead is a peculiarly apt focus for a director as devoutly and irreverently Catholic as Scorsese. The job is killing Frank, more and more of whose patients are dying on him. For Frank, no ghost is ever laid to rest, especially not that of Rose (Cynthia Roman), a vulnerable young hooker whose life he failed to save. He’s too thin-skinned to adopt the survival strategies of his colleagues: Larry (John Goodman), who gets by on detachment; Marcus (Ving Rhames), sustained by a conveniently elastic Christianity; and mad Walls (Tom Sizemore), who gets his jollies beating the shit out of vagrants like Noel (Marc Anthony). Through Noel, a demented young dopehead, Frank develops a relationship with Mary (Patricia Arquette), a former addict whose estranged father lies comatose in the emergency room. Frank tries to comfort the distraught young woman, but before long it‘s unclear who exactly needs saving, for Frank is slowly, spectacularly -- though not especially convincingly -- going to pieces. It’s not that Cage is the wrong man for the job: Eyes sunken into a face blue with pallor, staring hard at nothing, he makes a perfectly presentable burnout case. Only we‘ve seen him do this so many times -- in Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas, City of Angels for starters -- that his performance feels embalmed in the accumulated shtick of an actor trapped in excess.
Scorsese and Schrader, of course, mean for us to titter at, as well as with, Frank’s mounting hysteria. At times Bringing Out the Dead plays like an early episode of ER, a vision of chaos in the face of which all that sustains those charged with containing it is a shrill, defensive jokiness. The movie is a triumph of design: Scorsese‘s movies are a gorgeously hellish rebuke to the rosy, nostalgic glow of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but in Bringing Out the Dead his evocation of Hell‘s Kitchen owes more to Dante by way of Fellini than it does to Mean Streets. Down every alley crackheads lock in lethal embrace; lozenges and streaks of refracted light strafe Frank’s tortured features as his ambulance races through strategically moistened streets. In the inevitable climactic crucifixion, not Frank but a drug dealer is impaled on a balcony lit by sparks flying from the blowtorches of those who are working to free him. Scorsese can‘t resist: The sparks flare into a fireworks display, the violent beauty of a city apparently on its last legs. It’s as lovely a spectacle as the director has ever mounted, but it feels empty, a glam climax to -- what? Until the very end, there‘s neither progression nor regression in Frank’s three-day journey through hell. He‘s Christ without a narrative, an endless reiteration of Scorsese’s eternal question: Is mayhem an act of God, or the natural state of an ungoverned world?
Taxi Driver ended with a furtive glance into a mirror, a sly hint at further madness to come. As the century closes, Scorsese and Schrader are both pushing 60, and they‘ve been blessed -- or cursed, if you prefer your Scorsese apocalyptic -- with an attack of mellow. In the final scene of Bringing Out the Dead, Frank has achieved that most Catholic state of grace: He lies safe in the arms of Mary. Which is more than could ever be said for Travis Bickle.
Unless you fled the planet during Christmas of 1993, you’ll know that Brandon Teena, born Teena Brandon in Lincoln, Nebraska, ran off to the neighboring town of Humboldt dressed as a man, stole hearts and credit cards from a number of local women, told a few whoppers, and was raped and later killed by two male friends who found out that he was anatomically a she and -- insult to injury -- the lover of a woman in their circle. Primed by the tabloids, one approaches Boys Don‘t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s account of the last period in Teena‘s appallingly short life, in a swirl of ambiguous motive: hunger for sensational detail, horror and sympathy for a victim, curiosity about the mechanics of transgendering. Peirce, who co-wrote the script with Andy Bienen for a graduate thesis at Columbia University, caters to all the above, and then some.
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