The year 1999 will be known for a trillion different reasons. A turning point socially and obviously the last moment before the turn of the century, 1999 has become known as not only a truly significant year in our history, but one of the greatest years for cinema since its inception. With the rise of cult auteurs like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) to the continuation of legendary careers like Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother) all the way to some blockbuster franchises making their mark in the form of Pixar’s Toy Story 2, 1999 is one of the greatest years in cinema history. However, with so much shine given to a year that gave us films like The Sixth Sense and even Magnolia, it still very much has some of its truly underrated masterpieces. And oddly enough, one of the biggest comes from one of the film world’s biggest auteurs.
As Martin Scorsese’s final film before the turn of the century, the director marked this culturally monumental moment with one of his most singular and seemingly misunderstood pictures to this very date.
Entitled Bringing Out The Dead, Scorsese’s picture stars Nicolas Cage as seemingly distance decendant of characters we’ve seen in various Scorsese films (Bickle from Taxi Driver is an obvious and often-mentioned comparison). Frank Pierce is an ambulance driver on the brink of a nervous breakdown from the weight of a broken marriage, and a career of trying to walk the tightrope between the happiness of saving a life and the absolute despair of being unable to do that very thing. However, things really come to a head when the man runs into a woman named Mary, a patient’s daughter. The two spark a profound relationship not so much built around romance or sexual attraction, instead finding solace in each other’s constant battle with past ghosts that have no interest in leaving their side. With a script from Paul Schrader and a score from the legend himself Elmer Bernstein, this film is a melting pot of ideas and themes from throughout Scorsese’s canon, all thrown into a blender that gave birth to one of Scorsese’s most aesthetically esoteric and bombastic pictures to date.
As manic and lively a picture as Scorsese has ever given us, the film is a direct manifestation of the lead performance here, one of Cage’s most entrancing and raw. Rarely better than he is here, his energy and vitality as an actor is so perfectly distilled here that every line reading seems to be reason enough for the actor to have been born, every empty glance proof enough that he is truly unlike any actor of his era. A film drenched in an ostensibly about human compassion, Cage’s performance is off kilter as many of his turns are, but has such a great sense of raw energy and realism to it that it becomes a real rock for the viewer to enter the film weighed down by. He’s opposite a rather superb supporting cast, led by Patricia Arquette, an actress who never seems to get the respect she deserves. Fantastic here as Frank’s romantic interest of sorts, the two have solid chemistry, and their connection feels real and ultimately like a natural move for their characters. Toss in anarchic turns from Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore, as well as a really fun supporting performance from John Goodman (all three of whom play various partners of Frank’s over the span of the film), and you have a film that is chock full of unwavering vitality and kinetic energy so potent that it seems more like a long lost Spike Lee picture than anything Scorsese has ever given us (Lee’s Clockers was just four years old, so Lee had to have had an impact on Scorsese given this picture).
Aesthetically, the film owes much to both its director, and especially the cinematographer. DP here is Robert Richardson, who has been a staple of Scorsese’s filmography for years now, giving one of his best jobs here. With enough grit and grime to make you feel like you have NYC muck shoved under your fingernails, the hospitals here are antiseptic in their greens, and the city streets lit by nothing more than streetlights and the aura’s of the lost souls these men have and go on to encounter. It’s a gorgeous piece of work from a cinematographer who doesn’t get the respect he rightly deserves. Scorsese directs this film like a man possessed, as well. While chock full of his patented sweeping camera shots and long dolly shots, the film doesn’t rely on those, instead giving us flights of fancy like a drug induced dream sequence, a night time, speed ramped rocket-like journey through the New York streets and various other bits of anarchic filmmaking to really draw the viewer into this world of ghosts and deep regret. It’s a level of energy that Scorsese rarely hit at before and truly hasn’t hit since, especially now as a director as interested in big Hollywood epics as he is the occasional bit of stylistic and genre experimentation (Shutter Island is the last time the director has drawn even close to this level of energy). Hell, this makes Wolf Of Wall Street look like an Ozu picture. Toss in a brilliant score from Bernstein and the usually great soundtrack you expect from Scorsese, and you have one of his most underrated films yet.
A deeply moving meditation on faith, religion, the human relationship to death and most importantly redemption, this is a truly definitive work in Scorsese’s canon. However, it still doesn’t get the love critically or culturally that it so rightly deserves. Barely available on DVD, the current home video release for this film is fine. The transfer is solid and the audio works rather swimmingly. However, with nothing more than a few interviews, this film needs a new home video release. There are more than its fair share of scholarly supporters, and with Scorsese still very much kicking and seemingly in love with this film (his entire camp, from editor Thelma Schoonmaker to the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, seem to adore this picture), there is more than enough room for a commentary or two. A retrospective making of featurette would be great, as would be some insight into the film’s inspiration, a novel from Joe Connelly. I’ve never read the book, but would love to hear about how the adaptation process was for Schrader, and everything that went with it. Also, Dante Ferretti’s production design could use some light put upon it, so this would be a perfect outlet for it. One of the best films from one of the film world’s greatest auteurs, this film has languished in home video limbo too long. Criterion, just give us the release we all want and that this picture so truly deserves.