Let's pretend that you're a director and that you need to cast the role of a middle-aged male who's riddled with angst and self doubt and perhaps a bit obsessive to boot. Chances are you're going to pass on the likes of Jim Carrey, eh? and neither Richard Gere nor Mel Gibson will fill the bill, either. Nope, you're gonna point the casting director straight at the hang-dog face of Nicholas Cage. Even when he's doing comedy, Cage's basset-hound jaw and wounded-Bambi eyes exude those qualities you seek.
Well, Martin Scorsese got that particular bit of direction right in "Bringing Out the Dead," and most of the rest of the casting is spot-on as well. It's just that the plot of this dark, depressing movie about a New York EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) is in serious need of an ambulance. The script is based on a novel by Joe Connelly, himself a (former?) New York EMT. One can only hope that the people depicted in this script aren't really being allowed to run around in ambulances, unless they're in restraints in the back!
In "Bringing Out the Dead" we ride along for three consecutive midnight shifts as Frank (played by Cage) sleepwalks through his duties as an ambulance driver/attendant. His world is populated by street people, emergency room doctors and nurses, an occasional patient, hookers and dealers, and -- most of all -- the ghost of Rose, a street teen Frank couldn't save. Frank's obsessed with Rose, seeing her face on every head that he passes; hearing her voice in every sound. Her death has placed Frank on a downhill skid: since then, he's not "brought anyone back" and (in his obsessive way) he finds himself so much a failure that he's been trying everything to get himself fired for weeks now, without any luck.
Frank's three long nights are spent with three different partners: the madcap Larry (John Goodman), the religious zealot / lady's man Marcus (Ving Rhames), and the psychopathic Walls (Tom Sizemore). Recurring characters are a recovering drug addict named Mary, played by a strangely subdued Patricia Arquette; and an omnipresent street person played by a dreadlocked (and surprisingly clean) Marc Anthony. Mary, whose father Frank and Larry resuscitate after a coronary on the first night, drifts into Frank's life and consciousness like a wraith; he becomes obsessed with her well-being much as he is already obsessed with the dead Rose.
Cage's portrayal of the tortured Frank is replete with long, brooding silences and soulful stares into the camera. As the film progresses, the makeup limning his puppy-dog eyes becomes ever more bruise-like and raw. Arquette plays the world-weary Mary straight; we catch only rare glimpses of her elfin beauty through a dowdy wardrobe and a jet black dye job. Rhames and Goodman shine in their roles as comic relief (albeit dark comedy), while Sizemore's portrayal of Walls is chilling. In short, the film is well cast.
But for a director of such repute, Scorsese has gotten lazy here, falling back on cheap videography tricks for effect. The racing ambulance is shot time after time from bizarre camera angles; just as there are uncountable closeups featuring the huge circles under Frank's eyes. The cheapest trick of all is in the lighting: as befits a midnight shift in a big city, everything is dark -- street scenes and alleys, interior shots of the ambulance cab, stairwells and balconies are all poorly lit. But for some unknown reason, Scorsese also makes the interiors -- including a normally brightly-lit Emergency Room -- so dark you want to fiddle with the controls on your set. However, whenever Scorsese wants to remind us of Frank's noble calling, his white uniform shirt takes on a glaring, phony luminescence and fairly glows.
Thanks, Martin, but you didn't need to bludgeon me with that particular technique -- especially not several times.