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.
She has a canny eye for the lurid, but not a corrupt one. The rape and murder scenes of Boys Don’t Cry, though trimmed to escape an NC-17, remain harrowing enough to disturb your sleep, as well they should. Though the movie is styled after the small-town film noir favored by young independent filmmakers, it‘s free of the disclaiming jokey sneer that defaces so much of contemporary neo-noir. Shot by Jim Denault with the grungy lyricism he perfected for Michael Almereyda’s lovely Nadja and Kelly Reichardt‘s River of Grass, almost all the film’s action takes place at night in the cramped, tawdry houses inhabited by Teena‘s lumpen coterie. Yet the predominant tone is pensive, even wistful, allowing Peirce to slip the restraints of smug tabloid sociology — lesbian! thief! hate-crime victim! — and individualize this deluded naif who imagined that charm and forthcoming surgery were all it would take to persuade the world to accept him.
And what charm he has, in the quietly controlled presence of Hilary Swank, late of Beverly Hills 90210 and The Next Karate Kid. Unable to rely on the visual splash of male-to-female cross-dressing, Swank, her long blond hair cut short and dyed a nondescript brown, plays Teena as a beguiling lad with eager-to-please eyes and the barest hint of the Lothario about him. Teena lacked both the rhetoric and the support of a metropolitan transgendered community to sustain him: All this young provincial knew was that he wanted to live as a man and make love to women. Though Peirce doesn’t shrink from Teena‘s checkered history with the law or his childhood in a decidedly illiberal environment, she doesn’t try to explain him away as a victim of lousy parenting. Among the crowd he falls in with, Teena stands out as the soul of sanity. Cast from the freakier edges of indie film — Peter Sarsgaard is riveting as John Lotter, the loose cannon who eventually becomes Teena‘s persecutor — Teena’s friends are as sorry a crew of drunks, dopeheads and self-mutilators as you could find this side of Larry Clark. Chloe Sevigny, a survivor of Clark‘s awful Kids, here achieves a ruined dignity as Lana, the girl with whom Teena falls in love. Their relationship, sustained even after Lana wakes up, after a fashion, to the fact that there’s no penis, raises the movie‘s most interesting question, which is not what made Teena who he was or whether he was gay, but how did he manage to hold on to the women he attracted long after it should have become obvious he lacked some crucial equipment? The stock answer offered in such accounts is that as a former woman, he’d know exactly what women want: attention, respect, flowers. Peirce persuasively sidesteps this rather flabby view of female sexuality — for as many women as not, size matters more than sweet talk or even a slow hand — by setting both Lana‘s love for Brandon, and the hatred he inspired in certain men, against the brutalizing conditions of life among the dispossessed of Falls City. For Lana, Peirce implies, he was a signpost to liberation. As for Brandon, his tragedy may have been to cut and run a mere 50 miles for freedom. Had he headed straight for San Francisco, he might be alive and blissfully hairy today.