The story takes place over a three-day weekend as Frank Pierce provokes his boss to fire him for unprofessional behavior or else he will quit the fleet. It does not exactly pose a threat to his boss who remembers all the previous attempts Frank has walked into the manager’s office and proclaimed a desire to quit his job. However, his boss holds no personal courage to stand up to Frank by actually firing him, but merely sideswipes the topic at hand. Nearly all of us have been in Frank’s situation at one point in our lives when all personal interest in the job is running at an all time low, and there is the desire to find some sort of an easy exit from the dead end job. It is not a thrilling situation to find oneself stuck within. The most troubling of circumstances for Frank is the constant barrage of self-imposed guilt for not saving the life of a young pregnant woman who he discovered living on the streets at the time. With a high amount of physical and emotional exhaustion that he has been experiencing lately there are moments when he begins to hallucinate her return from the grave in order to haunt him with questions about his inability to save her life.
Right from the start of the film, we are immersed into a dark atmosphere of the human spirit. It can be depressing, but it is the way of the world. As the opening credits are slapped upon the screen over a black background and inter cut with extreme close ups of Frank Pierce working the stressful front line of being a paramedic the audience listens to the melancholy blues song “T.B. Sheets” which is performed by Van Morrison. The credits and the brief visuals are loosely cut to the pounding of the drumsticks while the shrilling sound of the emergency siren is substituted by the sound of a high-pitched note played on the harmonica. Embedded below is the song in its entirety and I ask that you listen to the words of the song as well as the tone of the music while imagining a paramedic vehicle racing down the street to save a dying person.
T.B. Sheets by Van Morrison
The music that is used in the film is such an integral part of the story that it has become a character all its own. If the character of the music were to be manifested into a physical representation within the story, it would clearly be the narrator of the film. The lyrics of “T.B. Sheets” is about a woman by the name of Julie who is suffering from the pains of tuberculosis while the singer is a visiting guest who sits uncomfortably in her convalescent room watching her fade away. He is sitting in the presence of sickness and despair, but unable to cope with it. The same concept is applied to Frank who shows the difficulty of coming to terms with people who are dying around him and he cannot save every single one of them. There is a very specific reference made to this song, which is spoken by a supporting character. Noel is a mentally unstable man (portrayed by singer Marc Anthony) who makes a first appearance in the emergency room of a local hospital. He keeps yelling for a glass of water, because he is thirsty. He is surrounded by several patients who are physically hurt and dying. He is physically restrained to a gurney, but all he simply wants is a glass of water to drink before rushing out of the emergency room. In my own interpretation of the lyrics, the remainder of the song is a reflection of the relationship between Frank and the young pregnant woman who died in his arms six months prior.
The opening song from Van Morrison is not a primary theme for the film, but merely a prologue to its story. The film opens up with a prologue of the opening song and credits along with the introductory scene where Frank Pierce is properly introduced as he attempts to save a man from a potentially fatal heart attack. Once he transports the patient to the hospital the film truly begins into the first part of three chapters, each one clearly separated as Day One, Two, and Three. Through the progression of the story there are several songs that tie in with the mood and thematic elements that serve as supporting character to Frank’s story. The style of music spans across several different styles including the introductory blues song, followed by classic punk music (The Clash, Johnny Thunders) to a sample of British reggae (UB40) and mixed in with a couple of samples from Motown (Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes). Not bad of a mix tape, I would imagine.
Moving beyond the soundtrack there is a strong visual style of harsh lighting to accentuate an ever present glow from above (gee, I wonder) that creates deep shadows amidst the actors in several scenes. Although the style of lighting has been over used in television dramas like crime shows of the last ten years there still is a certain symbolic use for it within the film. It is not the primary lighting scheme used throughout the entire film, thank God. There are a few scenes cleverly designed with very soft lighting and minimal shadows. The lighting differences are noticeably different during the scenes that contain a change in emotional mood. Sometimes when the stress levels are high such as during an emergency rescue or certain scenes in the emergency room there are very sharp, bright lights that flood down like spotlights which leaves highly contrasted shadows across the faces of the actors or upon the set pieces. On the other side to the high contrast lighting scheme there are a few scenes of peace and tranquility represented with a minimalistic lighting scheme completely void of shadows.
The entire production of the film is an artistic treasure that stimulates the perceptual senses of hearing and seeing. As perfectly described by Cy Coates, the drug dealer in the film, it is all so beautiful.