Losing My Religion: Bringing Out The Dead
Every Friday during Lent, Sean will be writing about a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question in his column Losing My Religion. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this second Friday of Lent, he sets his sights on 1999's Bringing out the Dead, directed by Martin Scorsese, who's no stranger to Catholic guilt on film.
NYC paramedic Frank Pierce (in a career high point for Nicolas Cage) is maybe three steps beyond his wit’s end. He hasn’t had a save in months, all his patients keep dying on him. He’s burned out more than anyone else on the underpaid, overworked responder crew, so he keeps angling to get fired.
Oh, and the maybe-ghost of Rose, who kicked off his no-save cold streak when she died because of his inability to properly get a breathing tube placed, haunts his waking hours, like he’s living a nightmare. So, a minor amount of self-loathing would be expected, least of all because he’s trying to get fired rather than just resign. Frank can’t bring himself to do that, though, because he knows he has the ability to save people’s lives, even if he hasn’t been very good at it lately. But not trying would cause him more grief, even if it means he loses them when he does try.
Despite his own spoken desire to be relieved of his duties, Frank does his job. But his guilt causes him to doubt his own judgment and ability. All of Frank’s partners, be it Marcus (Ving Rhames, channeling a revival faith healer during one call) or Tom (Tom Sizemore) or his first shown partner, Larry (John Goodman) are good at their jobs, and dedicated despite being jaded.
The first call we see has Frank and Larry responding to Mary Burke’s (Patricia Arquette) father collapsing from an apparent heart attack. While Larry calls ahead for a declaration of death, Frank sees Mr. Burke’s heart spontaneously begin to beat once more. Frank’s desire for a confirmed save pushes him to follow up with his patient well beyond the normal, and to insert himself into Mary’s life with updates. She’s much more open about her own guilt in wishing her father dead just before he collapsed, due to the effect of the trauma on her family life.
Mary turns to drugs to deal with her grief and guilt, dragging along Frank to keep her company. Her drug dealer Cy (Cliff Curtis) offers Frank a pill of his own. When the pill takes effect, he first sees himself in a pleasing, peaceful scene wherein he is able to literally bring back those he could not save. The trip turns bad when Frank brings his own guilt into it, reliving the moment he lost Rose. It was supposed to be a routine procedure he’d done easily hundreds of times, and his muscle memory failed him, starting Frank on the path we join him for.
Either because of the drugs or his own losing the thread of sanity, Mr. Burke begins “talking” to Frank during his visits, asking to be allowed to die. Frank’s denial that the request happened (or his own selfish desire to save someone’s, anyone’s life) lead him to assist in reviving Mr. Burke, for probably the twelfth time while in the hospital.
Frank’s narration throughout the film repeatedly mentions how he hasn’t saved anyone’s life in months. But even after he saves Cy’s life in keeping them both from falling to their deaths from the high-rise balcony Cy is impaled on later in the film, he doesn’t find what he is ultimately seeking: forgiveness and absolution from his own self-destructive guilt.
Visiting Mr. Burke again, he hears Mr. Burke’s voice call to him, asking to die, and this time Frank relents. Connecting the heart monitor leads to his own chest and taking the rebreathing machine into his own mouth, Frank goes against everything his training has taught him to do.
Rather than revive him again for his own ego, Frank lets Mr. Burke die. He stays until the doctors on call pronounce him dead. When he arrives at Mary’s apartment to break the news in person, he apologizes first to Mary, and then to Rose, begging both for forgiveness. Mary’s words, in Rose’s voice, absolve him completely, both Mary and Frank seeming relieved to find acceptance of her father’s passing.
In the close of the film, Mary welcomes Frank in, and he finally, restfully, finds peace, with the only sounds in Mary’s urban apartment being a slight wind and some birds chirping. In an approximation of the world-famous sculpture Pieta, she cradles Frank’s head in her lap, while both are bathed in cleanest, purest white light in the entire film.
Check back in next Friday for the third entry in Losing My Religion: The Exorcist Part III.