For a filmmaker to have a successful decades-long career, they must pivot time and time again, finding new grooves and avenues to explore. Oftentimes, the projects between such eras, the moments of transition so to speak, are awkward, nubile, half-formed, and better off forgotten, a test run for greater works. Think, for instance, of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, an interesting yet deeply misguided misfire that foreshadowed a decade of uncharacteristically dark and moody science-fiction from the blockbuster filmmaker.
Released on October 22, 1999, it’s fitting that Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead arrived at the twilight of the twentieth century, seeing as it also signaled the end of an era for Scorsese as a filmmaker. Based on the eponymous book by Joe Connelly, the film is the fourth (and final) collaboration between Scorsese and scribe Paul Schrader. It serves as both a last hurrah for the pair as well as a queasily anxious reflection on a New York that was soon to be annihilated. Taking place over three long nights, Dead follows Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a haunted paramedic trying to maintain his sanity as he wades through a murky ocean of violence, crime, and pain. It is a chronicle of life lived on the border, a man caught between life and death, consciousness and sleep, an eternal limbo of the soul.
Unfortunately, what should have been an all-around triumph was something of a box office disappointment, grossing a mere $16 million off of a $32 million budget. Scorsese was ready to return to the New York of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and After Hours, but America was less willing to follow him into the darkness. Only a few years later, Rudy Guiliani would become mayor of the city, transforming NYC into an unrecognizably plastic and gentrified version of itself.
Dead is a true outlier, yet, surprisingly, against all odds, it ranks among Scorsese’s finest. Perhaps this is because Scorsese is a filmmaker who thrives under limitations, who made a name for himself by documenting the grit and tensions of the city that raised him. I would argue, however, that the film succeeds because Scorsese is actually best at constructing intimate character dramas. As enjoyable as his mobster flicks are, I believe that he is at his most challenging, his most soulful, his most multidimensional as an artist when he is probing the soul of a specific person, exploring what makes them tick, their loneliness and shortcomings and the uncontrollable mess of their life.
Unfortunately, after Dead, and even in the decade leading up to this film, Scorsese distanced himself from that sort of storytelling. If anything, Dead’s underperformance was the final nail in the coffin for this younger, thornier filmmaker. For context, Scorsese kicked off the decade with 1990’s Goodfellas, his biggest hit to date, a sort of template for the culture-smashing ensemble crime tentpoles that Scorsese would continue to make for the rest of his career, such as 1995’s Casino. Goodfellas was the beginning of a smoother Scorsese, a structured filmmaker with an appetite for sweeping emotions, decade-spanning sagas, and grand canvases on which he could paint his ideas about family, religion, and the nature of man.
His next film after Goodfellas, ‘91’s Cape Fear (another box office hit), marked the beginning of another mode of filmmaking for Scorsese: the Hollywood spectacle. Moving away from crime, the city, or anything resembling Marty’s Italian ‘New Yawk’ signature style, these Hollywood spectacle films traded in nostalgia, scale, and craft. Even compared to Goodfellas and his mob films, these were more formal, more carefully constructed, more tethered to the studio films that Scorsese worshipped, the films he grew up on. Cape Fear was a literal remake of a classic Hollywood film, and as such, it revolves around nostalgia towards classic Americana, white suburbia, and the traditional family unit. This is not to say it worshipped at the altar of white heterosexual patriarchy – Scorsese is a far too clever and sympathetic filmmaker to go that far. Yet, this film — as well as 1993’s period romance The Age of Innocence and 1997’s historical epic Kundun — loves the aesthetics of old Hollywood, and yearns for a time when films could be more stoic, more slowly paced, more swooning. In other words, Scorsese finally felt he was ready to make the films that made him fall in love with cinema.
In a sense, Scorsese was right – he can make those grand Hollywood tentpoles. He’s quite good at it! Scorsese’s 21st-century films, including blockbusters such as Gangs of New York (2002), The Departed (2006), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), show off his ferocious pacing abilities and talent for juggling narrative threads. He is a master at creating a sense of place, and even his largest films are dense with texture, emotion, and empathy. That said, I believe the massive scale of these films robs Scorsese of the ability to do what he does best: to concoct true intimacy with his protagonists and dive into the psychological depths of a single mind. Oftentimes, these are the films created with Schrader: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Dead. And yet, these are not the only examples. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The King of Comedy (1982) and After Hours (1985) are, also, all driven by the vivid alchemy of weakness and strength clashing within their central characters.
Dead is one of Scorsese’s strongest partially because it is his last real attempt to look back on the New York that formed him. It is the work of an older, wiser man, and yet it reminds us why we fell in love with his films in the first place. Dead charts the ways in which the city has both radically transformed and, in many ways, stayed exactly the same, much like Scorcese himself. This city features the same anger and seediness found in Taxi Driver’s, and yet the film’s constant needle-drops, frenzied editing, and ultraviolence all point to a shift in attitude and attention. Dead’s New York is hyperactive, overflowing with noise, and completely numb. Unlike Travis Bickle, the denizens of 90s New York have adjusted to this sprawl of festering decay and cyclical pain.
Schrader’s screenplay is pitch-black morbid, veering closer to horror than Scorsese had ever dared go before. Due to the nature of Frank’s line of work, we are party to many a bloodbath. Whether out in the streets or within the labyrinthe hospital halls (mostly captured in dizzying, electrifying swish-pans), the viscera is unrelenting. By the end of the film, we are nearly as desensitized as Frank. Scorsese allows the disgusting to elide into banality, the randomness and futility of the violence rendering the acts hollow.
Indeed, their inspired collaborations lead me to believe that Scorsese and Schrader enhanced one another’s work tenfold. Schrader is a fantastic filmmaker in his own right, and Scorsese is clearly doing just fine on his own, but they complement each other so perfectly that it’s a shame to see them diverge as creators. Where Schrader comes up short on sympathy for his cruel worlds he creates, Scorsese has become nostalgic, softer, forgiving. Where Schrader’s works are taut and impenetrably despairing, Scorsese’s runtimes continue to inflate, cushions of time and space and character detail spreading out in every direction. If Bringing Out The Dead is their last convergence, it’s fitting that it takes place in a liminal limbo. The dilapidated hospital that Frank must return to, a place caught between realms, serves as the heart of a film about choosing between hope and desolation, and how hard it can be to pick one or the other. We, the audience, are just lucky that we were able to see each artist make their decision before departure.