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The Relentless Chaos of the Safdie Brothers’ Cinematic Universe

Writer-director duo Josh and Benny Safdie, best known for their films Good Time and Uncut Gems, are masters of building nerve-wracking tension
The Relentless Chaos of the Safdie Brothers’ Cinematic Universe
  • Rhea Candy

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 09.53 AM, Aug 30, 2022

safdie brothers
safdie brothers

“I’m gonna cum,” says a delirious Adam Sandler as he clutches a rare opal in Uncut Gems (2019). Drones of non-diegetic cosmic music play overhead. An employee stands in his office threatening to leave, phones go off around him. He has eyes only for the gem. This moment – framing cacophony, frenzy and greed – captures the distinctive filmmaking style of writer-director siblings Joshua and Benjamin Safdie. The worlds they create are hyperreal and yet seemingly impossible, characterised by nerve-wracking tension and the urgency of hand-held camerawork. Having first picked up the camera as kids, the brothers now have four fiction features, two documentaries and numerous short films which showcase the ‘Safdie-verse’ — worlds with enigmatic characters, messy everyday lives, and stakes that keep getting higher — and a cinematic language that has earned them the tag of being auteurs.

“You don’t judge a book by its cover but you judge a book by its first five pages.” – Josh Safdie

The films from the Safdie universe hit the ground running, immersing the audience into the world of the story and introducing characters who are in tense situations. In Good Time (2017), the opening scene is a close-up of Benny Safdie, playing the role of Nick. It slowly becomes clear that he’s a part of a psychological assessment. The words “scissors and a cooking pan” come up during the session and two tears drop from Nick’s slanting, unfocused eyes. He proceeds to talk about throwing a pan at his grandmother. We’re never given all the details of the incident, but the fragments are enough to fill one with dread. Just as it becomes clear that Nick is mentally disabled, the next scene is upon us and Nick is robbing a bank with brother Connie (Robert Pattinson). They’re wearing masks that are at once human-like and grotesque, and neon safety jackets. The scene is eerily silent, piling up tension with each passing moment as the two wait their turn in a queue at the bank. Once at the head of the line, they pass a handwritten note to the cashier demanding cash. The cashier fills their bag with cash and finally, the brothers walk out of the bank. And the audience can breathe again. 

Uncut Gems opens in Ethiopia, with scenes of mayhem during a revolt that’s protesting the injury suffered by a mine worker. Meanwhile two mine workers take advantage of the chaos and steal a rare, uncut opal from the mine – the titular element of the film. Hypnotic, electronic music plays as we dive head-first into the ever-changing, swirling colours of the opal which goes on to emerge from the fleshy colon of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler in a career-best performance), a constantly-hustling gem dealer in New York. Within the first few minutes, Uncut Gems establishes the frenetic quality of Howard’s life: He’s walking on busy New York streets, he’s arguing loudly with someone on the phone, he’s picking up cash from a flashy store, he’s being slapped and pushed around, he’s entertaining debtors. Welcome to the chaos, deception and greed that are the cornerstones of Howard Ratner’s world. 

 “If you know your characters, the narrative writes itself.” – Josh Safdie

The Safdies aren’t interested in the good guys. Their protagonists — compulsive gamblers, criminals, drug addicts — crawl the underbelly of this world. Howard Ratner offers a nuanced study of a gambler and, in many ways, of addiction itself. Sandler as Howard fights tooth and nail to scour money from one place, only to use it to place another bet, irrespective of the dangers involved. 

On paper, these characters are despicable. In real life, you would want nothing to do with them. And yet, we come to feel deeply for the characters that the Safdie brothers create. Their ugliness lays everything bare, including their vulnerability. In a scene from their film Heaven Knows What (2014), based on the autobiographical account of Arielle Holmes and her struggle with heroin addiction, the lead character asks her boyfriend if he would forgive her if she died. He says yes and the woman attempts to kill herself. In Uncut Gems, Howard is at his daughter’s school play when he spots a debtor’s henchmen sitting in the audience. An altercation with them leaves Howard beaten up and stark naked in the trunk of his own car. 

The Safdies make us love these reckless, manic characters and despite everything, we cloak ourselves in self-deception, just like the characters do, and wish they’d succeed. 

When Benny and Josh Safdie won the Best Director Award for Uncut Gems at the 35th Independent Spirit Awards, the two gave their speech together, one talking over the other — and this chaotic push-and-pull is all over their filmmaking too. 

Moments of stillness and silence are few and far between in Safdie films. The camera runs jerkily behind Connie as he escapes from the police in Good Time. It swings around in confusion as Howard’s office turns into a cacophony of loud voices, insistent buzzing and telephone rings in Uncut Gems. If the characters aren’t talking, they’re texting; if they aren’t talking and texting, they’re probably being chased as anxious drones of music match their rhythm. It’s a lot and it’s acutely intentional (much like their chaotic acceptance speech).  

Take, for instance, the scene in Uncut Gems featuring The Weeknd (complete with his 2012 hairstyle). Blacklight washes over a crowded nightclub, garishly brightening the whites, oranges and bling floating on bodies. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera gloriously magnifies the radiant colours against a deliberately dark space and moves on to a terrible fight between Howard and his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), which plays out as a spectacle on the streets of New York City. The long lens tracks their physicality and their nail-biting anxiety with such seduction that it becomes difficult to look away. 

By creating highly-stylised frames for narratives and environments soaked in reality, the Safdie brothers create an immersive watching experience. We’re watching a terrible life unfold before our eyes and it’s an undeniable cinematic experience. Few directors can make misery look so damn stylish.