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Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019) are ciphers for the Safdie Brothers’ exploration of capitalist ideology’s acidic hold on the individual. On its breaking down of character, reducing one to rubble. On its decay of the soul.
Both these films take place in the Safdies’ home of New York City, and depict their protagonists’ struggling for the commonly-held perception of the American Dream; that of individual success against all costs, of The American coming first. For Good Time, Connie Nikas struggles to simultaneously bust his brother out of jail while scoring off a drug deal that lands on his lap. For Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner must struggle to pay off gambling debts, while fuelling his addiction for increasing bets and the possession of larger and larger capital.
Good Time’s Connie Nikas, named because of the word ‘conman’, is venture-capitalism incarnate. Every character he comes across in the narrative is immediately expendable, including his disabled brother, Nick, who he spends the majority of the film trying to raise bail money for. While his brotherly love is apparent (the opening scene has him bursting into a therapy session, loudly exclaiming that this is not good for him, and his encouraging words after the bank robbery are somewhat touching), Nick is still the fall guy. He is left to be arrested after Connie successfully evades the police, and halfway through the film, when a possible drug deal is made available to Connie, it is left ambiguous whether he is pursuing the deal for Nick’s sake.
Race is at the very core of Good Time. The second scene has Connie and Nick robbing a bank wearing blackface masks. This gesture is all the proof necessary to suspect that Connie is well aware of the fact that, subsequently, almost every person he screws over for the rest of the film is black. “Taking advantage of the general disposition in this country to impute crime to color, white men color their faces to commit crime and wash off the hated color to escape punishment.”
After he leaves the hospital, he hides in a black neighbourhood, pursues the trust of the black teenage girl in the household (who he almost sleeps with), uses her to drive him and ex-convict Ray around (if they left her it would become a stolen car), and then leaves her to get arrested. Indeed, the most brutal act is Connie and Ray assaulting the black security guard until he’s unconscious, Connie stealing his uniform, and leaving Ray to pour LSD down the guard’s mouth. When the police show up, they automatically assume the now gibberish-speaking guard is the trespasser, and arrest him; he is unable to speak for himself, while Connie is left completely unquestioned. Connie looks into the teenage girl’s eyes as she is arrested, and tells the cop he’s never seen her before. At one point he even bleaches his hair, not as a disguise (it’s not a good one), but to make himself appear more ‘Aryan’; he knows the game. And he’s at least somewhat unconsciously aware that it is a rigged game; as Malcolm X declared ‘I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare’. He’s aware the dream is not for the black people of New York City. His every action exploits the parasitic relationship between white and black, to the macro-level, and sends the black people that end up in his warpath to feel the wrath of the racist NYPD.
Connie sees himself above everyone he screws over. Indeed, we see almost the whole film through his perspective; as such, his worldview is dictated to us through his actions; when he gives a dying hospitalised black woman some juice, he takes the rest of the carton for himself. And when he tells Ray ‘you leech off mommy, then you leech off welfare, then you leech off the government in jail’, this is him spelling it out for the audience; Connie is better than everyone, because he’s somehow earned what’s his, however little that actually is, whereas everyone else’s relative fortune is ill gain. This is also him ignoring the obvious fact the only difference between Connie and Ray, as far as we know, is that Ray has seen the inside of a jail cell, but his individualism blinds him to that. His treatment of others, of the black people he exploits to get himself out of his own messes, is reflective of how Angela Davis describes imprisonment as an act of disappearing others: “the prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited.” Consequence doesn’t exist to him.
Of course, the only reason Connie and Ray are in the situation they’re in approaching the film’s climax, with the police closing in and Connie still trying to make profit off a calamitous drug deal, is because of his own mistakes; yet he still tries to assert pathetic dominance. And when he’s in the back of a police van, his vacant expression tells us he doesn’t understand where he went wrong. He was only playing the game. And in the final sequence, when Nick is in group therapy, only then can he explore the oppression and exploitation his brother put him through; ‘Cross the room if you’ve been blamed for something that was not your fault.’
With Uncut Gems, the Safdies use Adam Sandler’s Howie as an heir to the Medieval European history of the Catholic Church barring Jewish people from all professions bar money-lending. ‘If you go back to [the] Middle Ages, the Jewish people were given the thing that nobody wanted to do, which was working with money.’ For Howie, it’s all about the commodity. Observe him talking about the opal with Kevin Gardner; his infectious excitement ends up a sales pitch for a jewel that was originally not for sale. And as soon as KG touches the opal, we witness a montage combining the volcanic eruption in Ethiopia that birthed this opal with KG’s childhood. In a film that is made mostly of confined interiors, locked doors, and claustrophobic camerawork, there is something grandiose at work here; this commodity is tied to the self, and, like Good Time’s Sprite bottle of LSD, becomes the macguffin for the transpiring events, and Howie’s relentless self-destructive path for capital becomes existential; like Parasite’s rock, it’s an empty metaphor. There is nothing worthwhile for either character to actually gain here, as the viewer will see over the next two hours.
Howie wants to somehow reckon with his Jewish history in this struggle; to pursue the American Dream and to assimilate with American culture (there’s a reason he hustles with basketball and R&B stars). His business is located in the Diamond District of New York, a ‘bustling hub of Semitic history and heritage’. But to do that, seemingly unbeknown to him and his reckless idealism and stubbornness, he must discard community. Of course, his family hates him; his estranged wife completely rejects him after a family Passover dinner (attended also by his loan shark brother-in-law he owes $100k to); his actions unwittingly alienate everyone in his life. Yet there is also a sense of unity between Howie and KG in their respective spiritual connections to the opal; they each see their Jewish and African history within this single commodity. A shared heritage of slavery and oppression, and of contradiction, the history of black and Jewish relations is beyond the scope of this film and this article, but worth investigating.
Uncut Gems views the personal lust for capital gain as an addiction. Howie is spiritually torn between assimilation, and acknowledging history. His mistress is not Jewish, and Talmudic tradition bans their being buried together due to her tattoo. Meanwhile, his estranged wife is Jewish; would he be attending Passover were it not a feeble attempt to get her back? His opening line to KG upon presenting the opal is ‘have you ever heard of black Jews?’ He wants to ‘wear the stereotypes as a badge of honour, then barge right through them.’ This dialectic struggle within him leads to a seeking of spiritual transcendence in the form of a never-ending quest for capital; each bet only leads to another bet. Dialogue scenes between him and other jewelers are a constant stream of numbers and transactions; referencing Eyes Wide Shut, his (apparently) bottomless bank account almost becomes an in-joke. And approaching the climax, when all signs point to an end and his final ridiculous bet actually pulls through, he’s only met with a bullet in the head; where the only motive is the gunman was tired of Howie’s shit. But, when the camera zooms into the wound and expands beyond the material plane, into something greater, maybe he’s finally reached his desired transcendence, and fulfilled his American Dream. Too bad he’s dead.
The Safdies’ 2014 film Heaven Knows What cuts through with a burning empathy absent from these other two films; in its depiction of a young woman in the throes of heroin addiction is a deep love for its subject. Its hazy soundscape hints at a longing for escape, of a world beyond what the camera depicts; something loosely akin to the American Dream’s earlier incarnation of ‘opportunity for all’. Conversely, Good Time and Uncut Gems are sickening in their intense assault of suffocating sound and grimy visuals and yelled voices piling on top of each other, only bursting in an anxious sigh after the ultimate descent upon each respective conclusion; that the American Dream is a futile beast that’ll only eat you alive. That it’s simply not worth it. That it doesn’t work.
“The ideological and social system of capitalism has also become a museum piece in one part of the world (in the Soviet Union), while in other countries it resembles "a dying person who is sinking fast, like the sun setting beyond the western hills", and will soon be relegated to the museum. The communist ideological and social system alone is full of youth and vitality, sweeping the world with the momentum of an avalanche and the force of a thunderbolt.”