Why the Safdie Brothers Stress You Out

Story

Story should be the top priority of any film, so let’s start there. Traditionally, stories can follow one of a few basic plots. Obviously, each storyteller adds their own details to make theirs one that is unique and worth telling. But you can boil down most stories to this; the protagonist has a goal and they must overcome obstacles in order to achieve it. The Safdie’s start off by giving their character a clear goal. In Good Time, Connie (Robert Pattinson) must get $10,000 to pay his brother’s bail and Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) must pay off his gambling debt. The Safdie’s use the obstacles to create tension for the characters and, in turn, stress for the audience. In a traditional story, the character overcomes each obstacle, one by one, until, in the end, they achieve their goals. Due to the fact that they have overcome so much, their victory feels earned and it creates a satisfying story. Safdie protagonists do not do this. They very rarely, if ever, clear the obstacle in front of them. They stumble through it and often create more obstacles for themselves in their failure to overcome the current one. The audience must watch as they mess up time and time again. The tension snowballs and the stakes get higher and higher as each mistake makes the goal even more difficult, and crucial, to achieve.

Characters

Possibly the biggest reason that these stories become so stressful is because of the types of characters that the Safdie’s use in their films. While Connie and Howard, at a glance, appear to be very different they do have a few common, or at least similar, traits. Namely, they are both highly impulsive and possess a misplaced confidence. Connie tells Ray (the man he stole from a hospital) “I am better than you”, when we as an audience have seen him do nothing but make stupid choices, certainly nothing to suggest he is better than anyone, whatever that means. Connie sees himself as a criminal mastermind when in fact he is nothing more than a very impulsive and manipulative small time crook. Howard has a similar overconfidence and while his impulsiveness could be attributed to his gambling addiction there is no doubt that he too makes rash decisions that do not work out in his favour, such as pawning off basketball player, Kevin Garnett’s ring almost immediately after being given it as collateral for lending the titular Uncut Gem to Garnett, but he presses on and continues to dig himself into a hole because he believes he can win. Both of these characters continue to push when most would give up which, ultimately, puts them in a worse position than they were before.

Filmmaking Techniques

This is not to say that the panic attack, fever dream chaos of a Josh and Benny picture comes solely from the script. From sound to vision, it isn’t just the ‘what’ of these films that feels like a heart attack, it’s the ‘how’ too.

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Aisling Kane

Aisling Kane

A Film & Media student writing about Film and Media