The Safdie Brothers: A Cinema of Anxiety
With the recently released Safdie brothers highly-anticipated film Uncut Gems, it’s worth going back to their previous cinematic work, and specifically their collaboration with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and the creation of what has been termed “a cinema of anxiety.” Utilising shaky close-ups of distraught and panicked characters, often while the camera is positioned at a distance, giving the viewer a voyeuristic feeling, as well as a residual panic due to the long-lenses inability to remain stable. This coupled with the often harsh, rapid electronic music the Safdies deploy to enhance these emotions can create what feels like a cinematic panic attack.
The Safdie Brothers began their careers in 2007 with the film The Pleasure of Being Robbed, followed by 2010’s Daddy Longlegs, both of which show the beginnings of this frantic, heart-attack inducing pace that they’ve become so well known for. These films focus more on developing their key thematic concerns, which pop up repeatedly throughout their work. They often focus on charismatic hustlers, people living on the fringes and surviving off petty crime, the fervently individual, and the relationships that these people develop with one another. What I would consider their key themes, and that which possibly creates this cinema of anxiety, is that of family, loyalty, destructive, toxic love and the lengths one would go to protect those you love.
The beginning of their collaboration with cinematographer Sean Price Williams also designated the beginning of their more iconoclastic visual style. The first film they worked together on was Heaven Knows What (2014), which follows a young female heroin addict, Harley (Arielle Holms), and her turbulent relationship with her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry-Jones) while living on and off the streets of New York. This film lends itself to the Safdies’ thematic preoccupation with people on the fringes, and also allows them to create a gruelling observation of the destructive power of addiction and homelessness, and toxic relationships. Williams use of lingering close-ups and unstable long-shots creates a voyeurism of general anxiety which is enhanced by composer Isao Tomita’s electronic versions of Debussy and the manic pace of the editing. This can be considered the beginning of what is quickly becoming the Safdie brothers’ authorial style, that of a manic, anxiety-inducing cinema. Often referred to as the heirs of the “filmmaking school of Scorsese, Friedkin, and Cassavetes,” the Safdie’s are quick to agree with this assessment; Josh, the older of the two brothers, speaks to how formative such filmmakers were on their style and content. Cassavetes’ work in particular is evident in their oeuvre as scenes play out at an emotional fever pitch. Arielle Holmes’ Harley in Heaven Knows What, is a role with a similar distressed, manic energy as Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence. However, the Safdies are influenced by these filmmakers, but are never derivative and always push the boundaries within their own style.
Their frantic films are collaborative works; although the recurring themes and consistent visual style can be attributed to the Safdies’ own vision, it has been refined and bolstered by their collaboration with cinematographers and actors. Perhaps most famous is their recent collaboration with Robert Pattinson on GoodTime, which takes that anxious mode of filmmaking and drives it up to ten. GoodTime follows Constantine Nikas (Pattinson), a street hustler, and Nick Nikas (Benny Sadfie), his mentally challenged brother. When Nick is arrested after a botched bank robbery Connie must trawl through New York’s underworld in order to either raise money for Nick’s bail, or to break him out. Pattinson lends to the film a sort of white-hot panic that is hard to achieve unless in legitimate crisis. Josh Safdie attributes Pattinsons frenzied performance to his ability to channel his own constant anxiety into the character. This anxiety extends from a complete lack of privacy he experiences due to his tenure in the Twilight franchise. Josh Safdie says of Pattinson, “it really did feel like he was a man on the run” and that he had apparently confided in him, after being surrounded by iPhone wielding fans, that he has a sort of trauma extending from this, which “whenever it comes and I’m face to face with it I get reminded of not having an identity and being robbed all the time.” This trauma, combined with the Safdie’s own high-anxiety filmmaking, and William’s whip-crack camera work allowed for the creation of a rapid and unique film style. Both Heaven Knows What and GoodTime flash past at lightning speed. They are unrelenting in their assault on our nerves, with both thundering through New York’s back streets at a feverish pace with very little respite. When the Safdie’s do deign to slow the pace, it is often for a truly difficult sequence, an emotional fulcrum. A reconciliation in Heaven Knows What, or in the case of GoodTime, a beautiful credits sequence.
Uncut Gems looks to be a continuation and refinement on this cinema of anxiety, with first look reviews stating, “it’s a bruising, desperate anxiety attack of a film,” and another masterwork in the canon of panic attack inducing cinema.