The parallel between Martin Scorsese’s new film Bringing out the Dead, and Taxi Driver has and will be noted by many. Unfortunately, comparisons made on the basis of leading actors have predictable and reductive results. As long as it is viewed as DeNiro versus Cage, then the greatness of Bringing out the Dead’s co-stars and themes will tragically be overlooked.
Cage plays Frank Pierce, a devout man committed to his profession as an ambulance driver, a role that acts as a religious allegory of the medical profession as the modern day saviour of our souls. His story revolves around the guilt he carries after he fails to save a young homeless girl, an event which has stripped him of his power to save lives.
As a result of his loss, we watch Frank progressively slip away in a psychotic downward spiral. Like Taxi Driver, Bringing is a story of a breakdown. But where DeNiro completely transformed the character of Travis Bickle, Cage is capable only of action movies. Sure, they are fun and entertaining, but when dealing with a director like Scorsese who consistently plunges into twisting psychological studies of his characters, Cage can’t keep up. He gives his usual gestures, those one dimensional moves audiences have come to love, and so relies on special effects and makeup to convey his breakdown.
Scorsese gives us an update on the state of wretchedness through a series of bizarre encounters between the medical profession and its patients. There is no uniformity, only a steady progression of lost souls. We watch as homeless men who fake suicide in order to get a little attention give way to a dread-headed psychotic who thinks he has been lost in the desert for a thousand years.
In response to a city that is a playground for the damned, a number of costars struggle to keep their minds. Patricia Arquette is a reformed hooker whose father teeters on the brink of death. In a movie so ripe with monstrous imagery, her striking and beautiful, yet demonic, features are a strong force.
As the movie and the hospital where her father is being kept alive dissemble, she desperately spins across a range of reactions from compassion to despair .
Strong performances are delivered by Ving Rhames and John Goodman, who play Cage’s ambulance partners. Rhames is a womanizing religious fundamentalist and Goodman is obsessed with the American dream of moving to the suburbs and owning his own taxi company, while seemingly unaffected by chaos.
It’s hard to summarize a movie that, with the exception of Cage, examines nihilism so relentlessly. Scorsese has shown the business of saving souls is strange site, where the medical profession we entrust to preserve life struggles with the incurable disease of a city with a sucking void in place of its heart. Not many movies can lay claim to a theme that big.