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Years active: 2007-present
Notable films: Heaven Knows What, Good Time, Uncut Gems
New York is over, and as its pre-COVID time ran down, Josh and Benny Safdie made some of the final work capturing the city as it once was. America is over, too, but for the purposes of this text New York is the center of everything—this, transplants to the city and homegrown lifers can agree on. The brothers Safdie were born in the ‘80s, Manhattan-and-Queens rugrats—their parents divorced—who into adulthood continue to treat the city like a sandbox to shape and wreck. Across scripted shorts and features, including Daddy Longlegs (2009), Heaven Knows What (2015), Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), and one documentary, Lenny Cooke (2013), they’ve passionately depicted an uncompromising and ugly-beautiful New York, a cluttered Midtown petri dish of 21st-century anxiety and precarity. In one, a father drugs his two young sons in order to cover a surprise shift at the Upper West Side theater where he works as a projectionist. In another, two heroin addicts sift stolen mail for valuable gift cards while affluent UWS dog shit rains down on them. A man dyed temporarily red after a botched robbery argues with the manager for more time in a Domino’s restroom in Queens while his handicapped brother tries to clean his face and eyes with toilet bowl water. A father and gambling addict drags his trash out to the street outside his Long Island home after a tense Passover dinner; his brother-in-law is threatening his life over money owed. The Safdies make love stories.
Consider the credit sequence of Heaven Knows What, a four-minute-long take in which the protagonist, Harley (Arielle Holmes, a first-time actor and the author of the memoir the screenplay is adapted from), navigates the hospital where she’s been admitted after attempting suicide. There’s no diegetic sound, just the stomach-burbling electronic score, and there’s only conflict, no explanation or insight, as Harley gets into confrontation after confrontation before she’s carried off like a child by a brolic orderly; a woman with a face unlike the faces you see in other movies taunts and laughs as Harley is whisked away. It’s tense, even though the camerawork is graceful; it’s also weirdly peaceful, after the sudden gory horror of the suicide attempt. It’s a moment to breathe, in an unlikely place—and an opportunity to breathe in an unlikely place.
In the Safdies’ cinema of unlikely places it isn’t ironic cruelty that real love persists. The father in Daddy Longlegs loves the children he parents poorly. Harley loves her terrible boyfriend. In Good Time, Connie loves his brother Nick in a way that renders him stupid and merciless—it’s their saddest movie. Throughout Uncut Gems you expect Howard to forsake or betray Julia (or vice versa) but they refuse to stop loving each other. It’s simply ridiculous.
After this is over New York will not be the same. But in the films of the Safdies, we’ll have one of the most potent time capsules of the manic hustler’s energy that animated its frayed pockets and crannies before March 2020. —Ross Scarano