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Diamonds In The Rough: The Sympathetic Stress Machines Of The Safdie Brothers
Kambole Campbell , January 10th, 2020 10:59

From Daddy Longlegs to Uncut Gems, filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie thrive in high-octane environments with chaotic heroes. Their four features to date show a singular preoccupation with anxiety-driven protagonists without ever losing humanity, finds Kambole Campbell

To be a protagonist in a film by the Safdie brothers is to consistently struggle to keep your head above water, as your greatest weaknesses continually threaten to drag you into the depths. Whether it’s Good Time’s bank robber scrambling to accrue the bail money to get his brother out of prison, or the lead of Heaven Knows What simply trying to get through the next day, in one way or another, the filmmakers’ last four features have been focused on the preciousness and precariousness of living on borrowed time, each character clawing to hold on to something so specific, often at the expense of everyone around them. In the case of Howard Ratner, the central figure in the filmmakers’ latest film Uncut Gems, the man is cheating failure and/or death by staying on the move, constantly taking bigger risks both to save himself, and to satisfy a compulsion that he simply can’t shake.

Though capable of committing monstrous acts, these characters aren’t monsters – the acts performed are often rooted in a form of addiction. In Uncut Gems it’s gambling; in The Pleasure of Being Robbed it’s kleptomania. Heaven Knows What, based on the true story of its lead actress, grapples with heroin addiction, and the various cycles that spring from it. Good Time perhaps shows notable exception, as protagonist Connie Nikas (a grimy, frantic Robert Pattinson) hustles or hurts everybody, but always for the sake of his brother. Perhaps Connie is just addicted to being the smartest guy in the room, revelling in his ability to bend others to his will.

The Safdies and their frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (who writes and/or edits all their features since Daddy Longlegs) work hard to make the audience understand the necessity and compulsion driving these actions, partly by exploring the risks of addiction in the script. The most memorable set piece in Uncut Gems simply sees a risky bet unfold. The film smartly places the highest stakes on Howard, gambling everything on dicey odds on a basketball game, all while placing the audience in a strange position – at once immersed in his emotional viewpoint, and seeing the camera observe him from the eye level of the loan sharks forced to watch the game with him. There’s a tension between how the viewer is horrified and perplexed by his compulsion, while understanding (and maybe even empathising with) the thrill of winning, and why he’ll never escape it.

This understanding transpires simultaneously through narrative moments and aesthetic choices, which steer the audio and visuals to enhance the sensation of being completely overwhelmed. Combining street casting, a grimy (but still vivid) visual prerogative, each work creates a deep and unsettling immersion in the underbelly of New York, oft left unseen to people unfamiliar with the city. This phenomenon often threatens to swallow us up along with the characters, as overlapping dialogue and chaotic sound design engulf scenes with anxiety, accumulating tension to the point where it becomes unbearable.

The Safdies’ latest offers a prime example of this method, from the beginning to its breathtaking end. An onslaught of claustrophobic frames and a constantly moving camera, along with most of all the aforementioned overlapping sound, frame people fighting to be heard until conversations dissolve into aimless yelling – itself subsumed by Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never)’s score. In isolation, the soundtrack sounds surprisingly serene, punctuated by propulsive but blissed out hip-hop earworms of the early 2010s (such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Swimming Pools’, The Weeknd’s ‘The Morning’). Moments of any kind of bliss, or quiet, are few and far between, and the same is true for the filmmakers’ previous work, particularly Heaven Knows What, based on the book about Arielle Holmes’ tumultuous time as homeless in New York City, her experiences funnelled into an onscreen character named Hayley. Hayley isn’t a grifter like Howard, or Good Time’s seemingly reckless Connie, making her swept up in the film’s chaos rather than causing it, struggling with an emotionally abusive partner and heroin addiction. Where Connie scams and manipulates people into doing his bidding, Hayley is a lot more passive, mostly reacting to how people treat her.

While Hayley doesn’t have the same kind of constant forward momentum as Connie and Howard, she is trapped in a cycle of abuse as she’s drawn back to her partner Ilya time and again. The noise of the synth-led score intermittently drowns out dialogue, while cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who also shot Good Time)’ camera remains uncomfortably close to her face. The film begins claustrophobic zoom shots that would later characterise Uncut Gems (shot by Darius Khondji) as well as Good Time, focusing on the dirt layering Hayley and Illya’s hands before cutting to Hayley crying by the side of the road. The camera stays close, on a swivel, often locked to her back as she moves through New York, with no fixed goal other than to get through the next day.

Despite this focus and consistency in theme, these works never truly revel in the chaos left in each protagonist’s wake; if anything, each film is acutely aware of the damage these compulsions bring. Using Uncut Gems as the most recent example, when the camera isn’t latched onto Howard as he attempts another desperate, go-for-broke bet, it observes the disappointment, fear and concern on the faces of the people who love him (though that love is often buried underneath mountains of disdain – see that of his long suffering wife Dinah, played by Idina Menzel).

Despite his desperation to dig himself out of debt, Howard makes good, canny bets – where his luck fails is in his relationships, with few but his mistress Julia (an outstanding Julia Fox) who trust him at all anymore, even if they might like him in theory. From how many of the Safdies’ films observe a protagonist descending in a spiral of self-destruction, it would be easy for the filmmakers to be cruel – but they never are. If anything, they’re deeply empathetic. It’s potent in Uncut Gems, particularly through characters like his brother-in-law (and debtee) Arno and Dinah. Despite Howard’s constant grifting and misdeeds, scarce amounts of genuine care and concern still show, even in moments of immense frustration. The forgiving tendency also shows itself in the film’s loving portrayal of Julia, whose affection for Howard is never mocked. It’s even clear in the borderline unrepentant tendencies of Connie of Good Time, who ultimately makes the right, selfless decision for his brother – even if he took a pretty bad path on the way.

But even Good Time is not deprived of the Safdies’ unique brand of compassion, following people who are selfish and single-minded but never entirely evil. Each film is a deeply involved character study that works its way towards making us understand and even empathise with the most irrational, even amoral decisions, and the kind of stress and tenuous circumstances that drive them. The films of the Safdies are indeed chaotic, but they also deal with the root cause of the chaos, turning the protagonist into both victim and perpetrator in a way that few other filmmakers can manage.

Uncut Gems is in cinemas now