Hell on Wheels

Scorsese and Schrader botch rich material in Bringing Out the Dead.

Bringing Out the Dead provides director Martin Scorsese with a rich milieu for one of his patented, pumped-up odysseys of the soul–an urban bedlam as seen through the eyes of an emergency medical technician, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). The film is based on a book by Joe Connelly, who cruised the streets of Manhattan in an ambulance from the mid-’80s to the early ‘90s, when the crack epidemic was peaking and New York had become the embodiment of everything untenable about major American cities. Connelly spent a lot of time picking up shooting victims, crackheads in the throes of cardiac arrest, and homeless drunks–some from the first wave of Reagan-era deinstitutionalization–and bringing them to the overpacked emergency room of what he calls “Our Lady of Misery” Hospital. The book is a memoir reframed as a novel: It boils those years down to a couple of days in which Pierce clutches vainly at the last vestiges of sanity. Night after night, he has visions of a young Hispanic asthmatic whom he failed to resuscitate: Her head stares accusingly at him from the shoulders of people he passes on the street. It’s not just that he can’t forgive himself for not having saved her life; it’s that he can’t forgive himself for putting her out of his mind. He can’t live with the idea that he has become indifferent.

The material has so many Scorsese-like motifs that it’s easy to see why the director fell on it and passed it on to his Taxi Driver (1976) screenwriter, Paul Schrader, who has said he finished the script in three weeks. I can believe that, and not just because there’s so much dialogue and narration from the book on screen. It’s probable that Connelly thought of TaxiDriver and Mean Streets (1973) when he wrote his novel, so having it adapted by Schrader and Scorsese was like closing the circle. But what the circle really needed was opening. It’s not just that slow-motion scenes of the ambulance gliding past people beating one another up feel like déjà vu. It’s that Schrader hasn’t rethought Connelly’s trumped-up story line.

The movie starts with Pierce and his occasional partner, Larry (John Goodman), trudging to the top floor of a Hell’s Kitchen brownstone, where a man named Burke has been in cardiac arrest for 10 minutes. They manage to get Burke’s heart started, but his brain shows only scant traces of activity; and in the hospital he keeps flatlining and being resuscitated–15, 16, 17 times. In and out of the emergency room over the course of several nights, Pierce gets chummy with Burke’s estranged daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), a lost soul whose shellshocked existence (she begins to drift back into drug abuse) seems tied in to her dad’s neither-living-nor-dead condition. Pretty soon I got the sinking feeling that the movie was building to the possibility of a mercy killing as a test of the hero’s ability to overcome his internal chaos and feel something. It’s true that Pierce’s “altruistic” impulse is not on par with Travis Bickle’s impulse to shave his head and assassinate a presidential candidate, but Schrader and Scorsese don’t view his actions with any irony. I have a feeling they needed an ending and this one was handy.

Their opportunism is a shame, because there’s enough texture in Bringing Out the Dead for several movies. Scorsese does crackerjack work, and some of the cruising imagery–not a bebop legato as in Taxi Driver but hyperfast and strobelike–is startling. There’s a scary irony built into the material: that the people charged with saving lives on the streets can’t function at normal rhythms; that their amphetamine-jag intensity can make them as likely to want to murder people as to revive them. Scorsese and Schrader are at their most inspired in the raucous theater of the emergency room, in which patients on stretchers scream at one another to shut up, and an admitting nurse (played by Schrader’s wife, the brilliant Mary Beth Hurt) takes pains to let the drunks and addicts and failed suicides know just how much they’re imposing on her. (“Why should we help? You’re just going to get drunk tomorrow.”) Scorsese and Queen Latifah can be heard as the voices of the dispatchers, and their calls–they often have to bully the drivers to answer–are beautifully shaped comic turns. Years of sitcom work haven’t softened Goodman, whose Larry is sour, unlovable, thickened by indifference. As another of Pierce’s partners, Ving Rhames talks into the radio like a toasty-voiced DJ (“Big Daddy Marcus is alive”) and strides through his scenes with an unlit cigar in his mouth, defiantly proclaiming his potency. The mixture of jokiness and blood never feels cheap–it adds to the movie’s theme, which is horrified estrangement from one’s own humanity.

I must admit that the movie made me weep a couple of times: It’s hard to watch with detachment as tubes are thrust down people’s throats or as they’re shocked back to life. Some of the more jaded characters act as if life is cheap, but Scorsese doesn’t. And everything Nicolas Cage does gives weight to the filmmaker’s vision. Cage has the same flamboyantly haggard (and toothy) look he had in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), yet this time the actor is grounded. His Pierce would love to soar off into the ether–to escape into madness–but he can’t quite make the leap. “Sometimes it’s less about saving lives than being a witness,” he says, in voice-over. “I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply showed up.” Cage’s wary alertness does those words justice.

O ne of the best things about David Lynch’s marvelous new film The Straight Story is its play on “straight”–which is both the name of the protagonist, the failing septuagenarian Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), and a description of the movie’s one-thing-after-another mode of storytelling. Farnsworth plays an old duffer who hears that his brother, Lyle, has had a stroke. It emerges that they haven’t spoken for a decade, and the last time they did Alvin said some devastatingly harsh things. So, as a kind of penance, Alvin decides to travel hundreds of miles to Lyle’s house under his own power. The only vehicle he’s legally allowed to drive is a John Deere lawn mower that goes maybe three miles an hour. But somehow the mode of travel–and the hardship of that travel–becomes the movie’s message.

I was impatient with The Straight Story’s opening–the arty dissolves, the crawling pace, the sense of stasis. But once Alvin left his mentally handicapped daughter (a radiantly simple turn by Sissy Spacek) for the open road, it becomes apparent that Lynch needed those early scenes. He needed to show you that as slow as Alvin is going on his tractor, it’s flying next to what he has been doing. As Alvin encounters a lot of plain folks, both the character and the movie threaten to start seeming “dear.” But the vein of regret, misery, and the Lynchian promise of decay is always just below the surface–and always palpable. In Lynch’s last film, Lost Highway, the director concocted an original, twisty syntax, in which identity was mutable and the narrative moved by quantum leaps. This time he sticks to the path, and his work is as transcendent–and as spellbinding–as anything he has done since Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch has slowed the world down and gotten back in touch with it. The Straight Story could be subtitled Found Highway.