Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Good Time (2017)

A very effective crime thriller in which Robert Pattinson goes grungy as a small-time criminal trying to break his developmentally-challenged brother (the co-director Benny Safdie) out of detention, to varying degrees of success. It’s all put together with rigour and economy, and tied together by a pulsating soundtrack that like everything else in the film seems designed to link it to a 70s/80s tradition of scuzzy NYC-set crime dramas. Pattinson is as good as everyone says and the film has a nimble agility in making even its nasty amoral characters seem understandable, as products of an economy and a society which doesn’t value any of them.

Good Time film posterCREDITS
Directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie; Writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 28 November 2017.

Uncut Gems (2019)

I mean, I can’t doubt at all that the Safdies make good films: they take all the elements of filmmaking practice and put it together so well. This movie is about a mostly pretty unlikeable, yet desperate to please, jerk (played by Adam Sandler) charging around like a character from a Dardenne brothers movie, but making consistently terrible life choices that get him into increasingly precarious situations and feels like a natural fit with Good Time. I also can’t deny that Sandler does an excellent job with the character, finding just a little sliver of something human in this extremely New York guy — a dodgy jeweller called Ratner (which almost feels like a knowing reference to a British audience, though I don’t imagine it was intentional). All of the performances feel naturalistic, all that shot-on-celluloid grain bringing out each individual pore on these oleaginous men’s faces as they fumble and sweat their ways into increasing trouble. It’s mostly pretty intense, and slows down just enough at all the right moments not to push the audience completely out of the cinema, but it just keeps moving until it doesn’t need to move anymore, and then it heads out into (inner) space.

Uncut Gems film posterCREDITS
Directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie; Writers Ronald Bronstein and the Safdies; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی; Starring Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 19 January 2020.


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