I remember when I first watched Heaven Knows What, I had never heard of the Safdie Bros. before (despite having known of their previous effort Daddy Longlegs), and yet this film was making its way to the top of many year-end lists. So naturally, when I found myself in New York, it behooved me to check it out. There were no screenings around, however (and if there were they must have flown under my radar), so as a result, I was forced to look it up somewhere online, because I was just so damn curious (Fortunately, now it’s on Netflix).
And you know what? I don’t think the Safdie Bros. would have minded one bit of how I watched their film. With its “kitchen sink”-like realism: a seedy underbelly of a city I knew much of but hadn’t seen before, it very much presented a “take it where you can find it” kind of vibe. It was almost like a rebirth of cinema – a Cassavetes-style of shooting where they hope for beneficial accidents to surprise themselves with unexpected results. Whereas nowadays, when most cinematic images lack any narrative substance, methods like these feel like they come straight from the heart of true cinéastes.
And funny enough, my first reactions to Heaven Knows What were rather disappointing – “What the fuck is this?” “This is a total waste of time and money,” how could this possibly have gotten on to all those year-end lists? And yet, I continued to digest it. It kept gnawing at me, like a bad dream I couldn’t get over. Was there more to it? Was there something beneath the surface I detected but couldn’t see? Could everyone else see this film’s appeal except me?
And that’s when I started hearing about the backstory of the film – the background of Arielle Holmes, and how the Safdies discovered her on the streets and ditched all previous plans to make a movie about her, by her, and starring herself, based off her memoirs “Mad Love In New York,” (which, I later learned, weren’t actually any published memoirs at all, just the stories Holmes told the Safdies upon meeting them.)
That was the first and only time I watched Heaven Knows What, and it was all I needed to understand that the Safdie Bros. were here to turn the film world upside down. And then, explode it.
But to start, I have to ask, “What makes their films so appealing?” – these cheap, guerilla-style, shot-on-the-fly films that looked like they were made while running from authorities because they didn’t have proper permits. But what I feel makes their films so appealing is the cheap voyeurism that comes with each one. They are films that feel like raw content that I shouldn’t be seeing. It’s the factor that once made films so popular in the first place; a particular documentary-like view into a life that was not our own and wasn’t meant to be seen. All of their films inhabit this view of an upside-down world, and very much look like they were shot with whatever the Safdies could find. Be it Daddy Longlegs use of 16mm film, or the zoom friendly DV-cam look of Heaven Knows What, this cheap choppy aesthetic makes it feel like it’s part of the characters’ world.
Much like their love for DIY style of shooting, the Safdies have an obsession with unlikeable characters. It’s what their films thrive on, playing with audience expectation and any preconceived notions they might have. In Daddy Longlegs, Ronald Bronstein plays a single dad raising his two young sons (not unlike the Safdie Bros.’ relationship with their divorced dad). He struggles to support his kids as a film projectionist and is eventually forced to drug his kids so he doesn’t have to watch them while he’s at work, only for them to wake up three days later. In Heaven Knows What, a heroin addict tries to prove that she’s worth loving and will go the distance for her abusive boyfriend. In their latest work Good Time, a bank robber gets his brother sent to jail and is forced to break him out. Throughout their filmography, they depict characters who are forced into positions one could tell they didn’t want to be in the first place.
However, it’s not solely the characters’ faults that they wound up in their positions. The Safdies intentionally create an almost pre-determined hell-like world where no one is safe, and everyone is an open target for being taken advantage of. But their films come to bear the question – were these characters born naturally unlikeable? Or is it the environments they’re thrown into make them that way? Their films tend to blur the line in this question, in which were never really sure where these characters originated or how they got there, if they’re the ones taking advantage of or vice versa.
Their character Connie in Good Time seems to demonstrate this Safdie character trait to its fullest extent. No one can deny that Connie has an incredible, almost sixth sense-like mastery of the world around him. Nothing is safe from him, everything is open to his advantage. It reminds me of a Robert Bresson film, like Pickpocket or Mouchette, where the characters have this innate handling of the world around them, and can somehow seamlessly navigate their way out of any situation.
Their characters show a relentless effort to survive and hopefully become better people. They never really “change,” that is to say, they never go through a traditional narrative arc. The Safdie Bros. are smarter than that. They see people and characters that never truly change, but maybe turn just 90 degrees in that direction, or maybe even smaller of a degree. But never a full 180. However, they make modifications on their original model. They modify or redeem themselves time and time again in hopes to become better versions of themselves, but never truly “change.” There’s a quote that Steven Soderbergh said which goes along the lines of, “You don’t have to create like-able characters, you just have to make them interesting.”
And with the recent success of Good Time, it’s as if the flood gates of opportunity have opened for the Safdie Bros, now signed with a major agency and looped in Martin Scorsese to produce their next film, the ever-developing Uncut Gems. However despite the opportunities, I have a strong gut feeling they will never “change,” but will make the next film their own once again. They’ve spent years shooting down major opportunities in exchange for uncompromising directorial control, and won’t stop anytime soon, forcing the industry to adjust to their standards, and not vice versa. They’ve come too far and worked too hard to forget they are.