A paramedic/photographer falls in love with an AIDS patient in a debut notable for its gritty realism.
They may not have the status of cops and firemen, but paramedics are on the front line, too. The job was worse in New York during the early 1990s, when crime was rampant and the city was being hit hard by the AIDS/crack epidemics. Frank Verbeckas, not long out of college, is a medic at Harlem hospital. He has become a connoisseur of the macabre, whipping out his camera to shoot the dead or damaged before loading them onto the ambulance with his partner Burnette, an obnoxious loudmouth. Frank may sound sick and creepy, but don’t rush to judgment: He is a mass of contradictions (and a fine photographer). His own trauma came when, after nursing his father through a long illness, he found him dead in the bathtub, a suicide. Spiraling into severe depression, Frank became a medic to cauterize the wound. Called to minister to another suicide, this one an AIDS patient, Frank meets Emily, who is also HIV-positive, and the two start dating (Frank uses condoms). Burke cross-cuts between their awkward courtship, which blossoms into a doomed love, and Frank’s on-the-job trials. The medics, led by the enigmatic Gil Hook, steal drugs from the hospital as a sideline, while guys with guns stand guard. Frank participates, but he’s too weird to be one of the boys. Burke’s pitch-perfect dialogue and feel for male camaraderie give these scenes an electric charge. Looming in the background is one of the surgeons, Frank’s abrasive brother Norman, furious about the thefts but unwilling to snitch. As Emily’s T-cell count drops precipitously, Frank quits; he has already seen one corpse too many.
The scenes between the lovers are touching, if a tad predictable, but it’s Burke’s evocation of a murky world, where savior and sinner come in one macho package, that makes this an exhilarating standout.