Why the Safdie Brothers Stress You Out
The Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny, exploded onto the indie scene in 2017 with their equally explosive film Good Time. More recently, their 2019 release Uncut Gems has introduced the brothers’ work to a much wider audience, even prompting outrage when the film was seemingly snubbed by the Academy. It may look as if they appeared from nowhere but the Safdie’s have been making films for over 10 years and in those years they have created a signature style. With only 4 features under their belt, their style has become highly recognisable and undeniable. Their films have been described as “tense”, “relentless”, “stressful”, and “anxiety-inducing”. Often, this is meant as the highest compliment as there are few filmmakers who can insight a reaction like this, especially in the mainstream which the Safdies, post-Uncut Gems, seem to be breaking in to. But what makes these films so stressful? Well, if you break it down, pretty much everything. From story to characters to filmmaking techniques, everything seen, heard, and done on screen serves to make the audience feel like they are having a collective heart attack. Let’s look at, and dissect, each of these factors and how Josh and Benny load them with tension, using Good Time and Uncut Gems as our examples.
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.
In Good Time, Connie is a bank robber. After a robbery gone wrong, his developmentally disabled brother, Nick, ends up in jail and Connie goes on a journey through New York’s underbelly in order to get the $10,000 he needs to pay his brother’s bail. So the objective is clear; get $10,000. But it is the ways in which Connie attempts to do this that create the snowball effect. What starts out as borrowing the money from his wealthy girlfriend becomes stealing his brother out of the hospital (Nick ended up in a prison brawl), which then becomes a hunt for a sprite bottle full of LSD (due to the fact that Connie smuggled the wrong guy out of the hospital). And the audience has no choice but to watch as Connie drags us through all of this chaos. At every turn, Connie makes the most immoral, and illogical, decision which causes him to fail to overcome the obstacle and creates a whole new problem. Connie is simply not equipped to deal with the situation but he presses on which creates an even more stressful situation which leads us nicely into the next point.
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.
Good Time wouldn’t work if it was Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven because he was a good thief. Uncut Gems wouldn’t work if it was Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill from Moneyball because they were good at crunching the numbers on sports. It is the marriage of being totally ill-equipped for the situation they find themselves in and a complete lack of awareness of their ineptitude due to overconfidence that makes a Safdie protagonist the chaotic, unpredictable force that both Pattinson and Sandler have been able to bring to the screen in two unique ways.
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.
Medium shots are few and far between in a Safdie film, the camera is either in a close up or an extremely wide shot. Both of these serve to draw the viewer in and ratchet the tension. You are either right in on somebody’s face (or some other detail) and you are forced to look at just this one piece of information and when this is face (especially that of our frantic protagonist or someone they are currently agitating) it’s overwhelming, you can see the intensity, you cannot look away from these wild expressions on their face, it is the only thing on screen or you are very far away from the action, forced to focus on one small part of the screen to see the action play out as the characters are now ant-sized. These two, highly contrasting, shots serve to grab the audience’s attention and then hyper focus that attention, getting you to focus on the smallest detail and sucking you in completely. The camera is also as frantic as the characters, often hand held or sweeping around on a crane or dolly, either way it is constantly in motion, relentless. Their films are often very colourful too. Good Time in particular is bathed in neon as Connie prowls around New York City by night.
Even the sound manages to add to the anxiety. Characters speak over one another, which adds an element of realism while also serving to ratchet tension. In scenes where the action takes place in a busy room, background chatter fills the audio landscape which adds to the chaotic feeling, this is used to great effect in scenes set in Howard’s jewellery shop. It is impossible to talk about sound in a Safdie film without mentioning Oneohtrix Point Never who created the scores for both Good Time and Uncut Gems. These pulsating, electronic scores propel the movies forward and keep the momentum to great effect.
The Safdie Brothers are some of the most unique, refreshing filmmakers currently working in Hollywood. They have, in a short period of time, made a name for themselves by putting unusual characters in absurd situations and by presenting these stories in visually striking ways. Given that they have stepped down from the remake of 48 hrs. in order to pursue more original ideas, it’s clear that they are not yet finished stressing out audiences in the most delightful way possible.