New York, New York, a tumultuous melting pot of excitement, fury, intensity, optimism and stupidity; it’s, as they say, ‘a helluva town’. Occupying a glorious place in the American consciousness as the beating heart of the great nation, New York is the very epicentre of the country’s national identity, emanating the same eccentricity and blinding confidence that can be witnessed throughout the fifty states of the USA.
Cinema has long been fixated with such a dizzying location, so bizarre and grand in its scope that it rivals any science fiction metropolis or wonderous landscape, though there is truly something more interesting that lies in its core.
As films such as Taxi Driver, West Side Story, Goodfellas, Manhattan and Frances Ha have shown us, it is less the place itself and more the vibrancy that such a location rubs off on its inhabitants that best represents New York. From the insanity of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s venomous drama to the optimism and sparky persona of the titular character of Frances Ha, New York is a roulette wheel of eclectic personalities where seemingly each and every person is capable of making it to the top.
Born and raised in New York City, there are few directors that recognise this identity more than Josh and Benny Safdie, more colloquially known as the Safdie brothers, who have changed the face of contemporary cinema with their frenetic take on the big apple. To the gaze of the Safdie brothers, any New York story is a great one, whether it be detailing the life of a single father in Daddy Longlegs, peeking into the life of two brotherly criminals in Good Time, or indeed scouring the Diamond district in Uncut Gems.
Led by the stomping tour guide Howard Ratner, played by the gorgeously chaotic Adam Sandler, the Safdie brothers take us on a dizzying trip through the life of a man who pursues the American dream with unprecedented confidence. Living his life from bet to bet, Ratner is willing to gamble his own security away for the chance of accessing that fantastical jackpot that perpetually tempts him like a dangling diamond.
Ratner isn’t the only one pursuing such a dream, however, with seemingly the whole cast (including the extras) each in the wild, frenzied race for financial supremacy in the busiest city in the world. Bustling with fury, excitement and frissons of electricity, the Safdie brothers bottle the essence of New York, pierce the retinas of the audience with a Powerade-fuelled adrenaline rush that provides the best impression of the city possible without being there in person.
With an astonishing kinetic vitality fuelling this romp around America’s busiest city, the Safdie brothers sculpt a cast of characters that look and feel as if they’ve just walked off Diamond Jewelry Way. Wildly strutting the streets of the city with drug-fuelled aimless purpose, Howard Ratner is a struggling businessman and a failing gambler who’s loving every minute of living on a constant knife-edge. This mosaic of blinding visual noise and sound effects helps to well reflect a disorientating city well beyond our previous knowledge of cinematic depiction. As Benny Safdie tells Dazed, “Recreating a New York City Street isn’t just slapping on a New Your City ambience. It’s cars, it’s a baby crying, it’s construction, it’s a siren, it’s a freeway in the background. You layer them together, you add dialogue, and then you add music”.
Such forms a cauldron of intensity, exhilaration and delirium that well expresses the identity of a city that hinges on its promise that anyone can try to be anything. Doggedly pursuing this mantra, Howard disregards his wife, family and business to get as close as possible to achieving his own dream. Despite his selfishness, depravity and sheer greed, there’s a strange admiration for such pure American tenacity.