Imagine being an ambulance driver in New York City, working long hours, catering to the most disadvantaged and downtrodden of people, and seeing the lives of people you try to save slip away right before your very eyes. Bringing Out the Dead shows in stark detail exactly what that would be like.
Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is the primary protagonist through whose lenses we glean the existential angst he endures for three days. Being an ambulance driver under demanding circumstances in and of itself is hard enough, but Frank blames himself for the death of a teenage girl he tried to save but couldn't. There is no real plot, and we're shown how Frank and his co-workers exist from day to day, doing the best they can, inevitably losing the race. His co-workers deal with the stress and horror they encounter in different ways: Larry (John Goodman) dreams of food and the future; Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore) abuses the people he should be saving, and Marcus (Ving Rhames) turns to the Lord Jesus for his refuge. Frank himself turns to Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a person he rescued, to help him get over the death of the teenager.
The pacing during the beginning is a bit slow and the ending is a bit too contrived, but the movie is hilarious and fast-paced in the middle. There's a classic scene where Frank and Marcus sing praise in the name of the Lord Jesus with a bunch of Goths (you have to see this scene to understand the incongruity) to "raise" an heroin addict who has overdosed (the miracle of an adrenalin shot). The performances by all the actors are terrific and this is one of the best films Cage has done in a long time, presenting the pain Frank feels to the audience in a powerful and effective manner, much the way he acted out Ben in Leaving Las Vegas. The cinematography is dark and haunting and the ambulance rides through the city appear like a trip through hell and back. The feel of the film is relentlessly bleak and that proved to be quite cathartic for me; after a while, you get completely used to the lack of light (which says something about finding comfort in the dark).
Bringing Out the Dead makes for an excellent and thought-provoking film, while not pushing any sort of a message to you directly. Worth the full price of admission.