Essay

The Brothers Safdie – A Retrospective

By Haley Goetz

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Josh and Benny Safdie, commonly referred to as the Safdie Brothers, are a different breed entirely amongst the modern independent filmmakers of today. Bonafide New Yorkers, the brothers seem to know every nook and cranny of their city intricately well. This knowledge integrates itself exceptionally well through their films, both short and feature-length, as the characters depicted frantically race around places audiences never seem to go to in films shot in New York. Raised by divorced parents in both Queens and Manhattan, the brothers both attended film school at Boston University before they formed a small filmmaking collective by the name of Red Bucket Films. It was through Red Bucket that the brothers and their frequent collaborators made a variety of interesting films. When Elara Pictures (their current production outlet) was born, however, that is when their filmmaking was pushed to the next level. Let’s take a look at some Safdie films, both from their mumblecore past and looking ahead towards their incredible present.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

This film was initially not supposed to happen. Josh was commissioned by Andy Spade of Spade Handbags to make a commercial video for their product. What he made instead was a mumblecore manifesto. Reminiscent to something like Andrew Bujalski’s 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, this one follows a young woman by the name of Eléonore (Eléonore Hendricks) as she flits about Manhattan. It’s revealed that Eléonore’s passion in life is to steal little things. Her reasoning for this is unclear, and that is where the film ultimately falls short. There is a rather endearing sequence, however, when Eléonore happens upon her old friend Josh (played by none other than Josh Safdie himself). Together they steal the keys to a Volvo and drive off to Boston, Josh teaching Eléonore how to drive in the process. This film ultimately doesn’t have much to say, but it’s a fun cinematic romp nonetheless.

Daddy Longlegs (2009)

Alternately titled Go Get Some Rosemary, this is where the frenetic energy of the brothers begins to be shown. One reviewer who saw this film was quoted as saying that the brothers need to get themselves a tripod to shoot with, and it becomes clear why this was said when watching the film. None of this film is shot stationary, so there is an almost constant shakiness going on through its cinematography. While this may be jolting towards some viewers, using this device actually helps to progress the story forward in this film. Focusing on a haphazard divorced father named Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) spending two weeks with his young sons Sage and Frey, the camera follows as the characters traverse from school to Lenny’s apartments to a wild weekend getaway in upstate New York. The film takes its time showcasing Lenny’s personality before moving on towards a high-stakes conclusion. Daddy Longlegs is a film that sticks with the viewer due to its off-kilter performances and verité nature.

The Black Balloon (2012)

It’s important to include at least one Safdie short in this retrospective. The Black Balloon is just that short that should be included. Gleaning inspiration from Albert Lamorisse’s landmark 1956 short The Red Balloon, about a young boy enamored by a red balloon floating through the streets of Paris, this time that balloon is in New York and it’s black. The titular black balloon gets separated from its colorful cohort of fellow balloons when they are released from the hand of a stressed out father leading a group of 40 children across a busy midtown street. The balloon later comes back to street-level, where it meets an interesting mix of people. There’s the man trying to make peace with coworkers he has wronged, followed by a young girl being frustrated by her estranged mother’s new romantic partner, and then finally a van full of fellow balloons. A few trademark Safdie touches can be seen throughout this film, including extreme close-up shots that show off every little change in a character’s mannerisms to an utterly abrasive score. In the end, this is a standout short that showcases the isolation that can be present living in a city so chaotic and connected as New York.

Lenny Cooke (2013)

The brothers’ first foray into documentary, Lenny Cooke takes an up close and personal look at young basketball prodigy Lenny Cooke as he rises through the ranks of sports stardom. This is a very encompassing documentary, following Lenny on his journey. He takes the audience to Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, before he ends up playing basketball in New Jersey. Lenny’s life takes a turn as he begins to lose focus on his schoolwork, and it’s heartbreaking to watch such a talent have trouble reaching the success he deserves. This documentary doesn’t necessarily stand out as a Safdie work, however. It functions as a great sports documentary with engrossing subjects, but the singular vision that usually works its way into any Safdie film isn’t present here. There are certainly flourishes, such as a jazzy refrain that picks up from time to time as well as one scene in which Josh (the film’s primary cinematographer) doesn’t stop shooting even when he technically should have.

Heaven Knows What (2014)

This is the film that truly got the brothers onto the map. Following a chance encounter on the street with Arielle Holmes, Josh essentially commissioned her not only to star in a film about her life, but also to write a book about her experience being a junkie on the streets of New York. Shot in extreme close-up in crisp digital display, Heaven Knows What is a film in which the audience cannot easily look away whatsoever. The film follows Arielle, who plays a fictional character named Harley, as she roams around the city looking for her next fix. A variety of people flit in and out of her peripherals, including Mike (Buddy Duress), her dealer, and Ilya (Caleb Landry-Jones), her volatile on-again/off-again lover. Harley does whatever she can to get to Ilya, but in the end her main drug is of course the drug itself. Heaven Knows What is not a film that exploits its characters, and this is something that really sets it apart from other films with a similar subject matter. It certainly touches quite heavily upon drug use and a hedonistic lifestyle, but it also is a film about (twisted) love and gritty survival. Anchored by a crazy score composed by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink, this film takes its audience on a complete journey through the grit and grime of New York City.

Good Time (2017)

Easily the most energetic Safdie film to date, this one was also a beautiful little accident. Robert Pattinson, the film’s star, happened upon a still from Heaven Knows What and was instantly enamored by it. He went on to contact the brothers, and before they knew it the three of them had drawn up the idea for a fun pulpy Queens-based heist film. Good Time follows Connie Nikas (Pattinson), a man with absolutely no morals, as he tries to get his mentally-impaired brother Nick (played with grace by Benny Safdie) out of Rikers Island after the two of them are not able to successfully pull off a large-scale bank heist. The next half of the film is an absolute blur, as Connie must make his way through the city trying his best to scrap together the necessary bail money. Along the way, Connie meets a wild cast of characters. The stand-out of this bunch would have to be Ray (Buddy Duress), who Connie accidentally picks up at a hospital and has to keep around for the rest of the film. As an audience member, this film is meant to keep the eyes completely glued to the screen at all times. It is shot, per most Safdie films, in extreme close-up. The colors in this film dazzle, ranging from an electric pink sort of spray that covers the brothers as they fail at their bank heist to the trippy confluence of various hues at an amusement park that Connie ends up breaking into. What really ties this film together, however, would easily have to be the score by electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never. Each beat of the film is anchored by a new riff that cut deep into the veins of the both the audience and the characters, hurtling everyone towards a crazed conclusion.

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