All posts by BS

Lady Bird (2017): Refreshingly Honest Transition to Adulthood

After starring in and often co-writing several independent comedies and dramas, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) finally makes her solo directorial debut. Having worked with many talented directors, her style bears some similarities to her previous collaborators, especially Noah Baumbach, but she has a voice all her own. Her first outing confirms her as a genuine talent able to bring intimate stories to life. Lady Bird follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan; Brooklyn) through her last year of high school as she deals with the trials and tribulations that come along with transitioning to adulthood and independence.

With her vibrant reddish hair and anarchic mindset, Lady Bird is the epitome of an awkward teen. She is clearly an intelligent young woman, but doesn’t have good grades or the right look and attitude to fall into the popular crowd. She wants to escape Sacramento and go to a college on the east coast, but doesn’t have the resume or money to do so. She longs to become someone more than she is. Someone more sophisticated than her current self. Ronan plays Lady Bird as equal parts defiant and confused as she stumbles through the ups and downs of her life. There are moments when her American accent falters, particularly when yelling, but overall it holds up nicely. She is essentially a younger version of the character type that Gerwig almost exclusively plays. Her youth and the naivete that comes with it make her flaws all the more sympathetic.

Lady Bird’s often explosive relationship with her mother is the central conflict of the film.

Gerwig may have created the first coming of age story about a millennial, by a millennial. From the introduction of cell phones – rich kids first, of course – to the Justin Timberlake songs in the background of a party, the details of the setting ring painfully true to anyone who grew up in the period. Despite being shot digitally, Gerwig adds a noticeable film grain and a uses a softer focus that drenches the film in her nostalgia for the past. While she has stated that the film is not based on specific events from her life, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are watching a fictionalized version of her own adolescence.

More than anything else, Lady Bird feels honest. Gerwig’s approach to her characters is reminiscent of the great Edward Yang (Yi Yi). She exposes the flaws, beauty, and heartbreak of ordinary people, normally hidden from view. Lady Bird’s struggles at school, with boys, and, most of all, her complicated relationship with her mother have a gentle, but raw veracity. Her bland suburban life isn’t glamorized, and each moment is immensely relatable. She may be deliberately contrarian, but she does so in a way that is too familiar for us to fault her. Each outburst or fight with her mom comes from deep-seeded insecurity. As a teenager facing adulthood, Lady Bird is searching for belonging in a changing world and Gerwig has a deep compassion for journey. Her sensitive touch and nostalgic tone make Lady Bird a beautiful, refreshingly honest, and poignant coming of age story for a new generation.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Snark and Sentimentality

To prevent her daughter’s murder from falling out of the public eye and increase the chance of finding the culprit, Mildred (Frances McDormand; Fargo), a jumpsuit-wearing, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed mom, buys the titular billboards. She details the horrific crime and simultaneously places the blame for the lack of justice on the shoulders of the beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson; Zombieland). Chaos follows as local policeman try to save face, local townspeople retaliate, and Mildred doubles down on her cause. Many will compare this film to Fargo because of McDormand and the small-town murder, but this is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) signature brand of humor, distinct from the Coens. Mildred’s caustic behavior and McDonagh’s penchant for finding comedy in the macabre put it in a category of its own.

Without a doubt, this is McDormand’s film. There are few people who would be brash enough to knowingly anger and take on their entire town, but McDormand shows the tenacity and blatant disregard needed to make Mildred believable. As she faces the fallout from her actions, Mildred’s relentless pursuit of her goal and her choice, delectably obscene retorts are a joy to watch. At same time, she is still a mother suffering from the loss of her child and McDormand is able to display the subtle cracks of pain in Mildred’s otherwise thorny demeanor.

Mildred can stare down anyone that gets in her way.

For the first time in his film career, McDonagh tries to infuse some of the emotion from his best plays (read The Pillowman if you haven’t). In his previous films, the snarky, almost crass language, while often hilarious, prevented his stories from having a greater emotional impact. In Three Billboards, he supplements his humor with grief. The pain of a mother losing her daughter softens Mildred’s abrasiveness and prevents her aggressive, often militant actions from turning her into an outright unlikable character, but McDonagh finds most success in Willoughby’s story. Despite his setup as an incompetent police chief, Willoughby’s true nature is much more caring. As the terminally ill town leader and, more importantly, a father and husband, his inescapable fate becomes synonymous with the outcome of Mildred’s case. Willoughby has been searching for the killer, but, like with his cancer, his efforts haven’t made a difference. A short interlude where he ponders his demise will draw tears from most viewers. His gradual accretion of depth in the midst of the film’s otherwise eccentric antics is an unexpected, but welcome punch to the gut.

The effect of this gravitas is hindered by McDonagh’s control of tone. Rather than mixing the humor with the heart, these two emotions exist within separate spheres of influence. They don’t actively clash, but the disparate tones almost seem like different takes on the same story. Some scenes feature Mildred cursing like a sailor while others show the open wounds created by her daughter’s passing, but almost never both in the same scene. This is ultimately what prevents Three Billboards from reaching greatness. The humor of the film is still enjoyable and the grief shown has an impact, but without blending the two, McDonagh can’t achieve the complexity and balance needed to tackle the subject matter.

3/5 stars.

The Square (2017): High Art Satire

The Cannes film festival is the epitome of high art filmmaking which makes this year’s Palme d’Or winner an unusual pick. Winners tend to be serious dramas, genre-film homages, or more experimental art films – not comedies. And definitely not comedies that make fun of art. Following up another Cannes-prize winning film, Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) takes aim at the upper end of society with The Square. Chief museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) has his day ruined when his phone and wallet are stolen on the way to work. This incident is the first of many steps towards a gradual disruption of his life.

The world of high art is a polarizing setting. Artists and museum curators are constantly trying to challenge the status quo and push their work into new arenas while others remain absolutely baffled at how anyone could spend time or money on what seems like everyday objects. As Christian explains to an eager reporter named Anne (Elizabeth Moss; The Handmaiden’s Tale), “if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” Östlund understands the borderline lunacy and pompousness that comes with post-modern art and creates scenes where the veneer of sophistication is broken by simple questions. This culminates in an extended performance art exhibit where motion capture actor Terry Notary (War for the Planet of the Apes) enters a black-tie dinner at the museum and terrorizes the guests by acting like an ape. Ever-committed to his art, he refuses to break character assaulting and later being assaulted angry guests.

Östlund makes each museum exhibit to parody post-modern art.

Östlund also stages scenes of incredible awkwardness. He places his characters in seemingly minor situations that become pits of inescapable embarrassment. After Anne and Christian have a one-night stand, their intimate moment makes a shift into escalating mistrust and Moss gives her character the slight edge needed to turn things uncomfortable, yet funny. Her exaggerated expressions hint at insanity lurking underneath her professional appearance. Another scene features a small child somehow intimidating Christian after feeling that he has been wronged. Without any sort of leverage, he still manages to become a major pain. The scenarios onscreen would be ridiculous when read on paper or explained to anyone and it’s the preposterousness of each dispute that makes the scenes as hilarious as they are awkward.

The central conflict is Christian being yanked out of his haute lifestyle. As a “semi-public figure” of high society, he carries an air of refinement. His sharp suits and styled hair are characteristic of his upper-class milieu, but, despite his position, his life unravels because of minor events. Östlund makes a point to emphasize numerous beggars that Christian walks by every day. With each new plot beat, the director brings Christian closer and closer to those beggars. His desires and his comic, but stupid actions are as “low class” as anyone else’s. It never overwhelms the comedy, but encasing the story in a backdrop of class differences gives the film an unexpected edge. The combination of hilariously cringe-worthy encounters, high art mockery, and a hint of social commentary make The Square an odd mix, but nevertheless a deftly executed satire.

4/5 stars.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017): Threats, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Illness

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a normal person. His debut film, Dogtooth, centered on a family whose children were brainwashed into believing cats were vicious predators and that the outside world was uninhabitable. His most recent movie, The Lobster, was about a man sent to a facility where he had to find a partner or else he would be turned into an animal. As strange as they may sound, each of his films is centered on a high concept. His first was about societal norms, The Lobster was about the overlooked ridiculousness of courtship, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about trust during a family crisis. Steven (Colin Firth; The Lobster) is a heart surgeon who spends time with Martin (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), the 16-year old son of a man that died during an operation. After Martin meets Steven’s family, he decides Steven must pay for the death of his father. He claims a series of illnesses will strike Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman; Lion) and their son and daughter unless Steven makes an impossible choice.

Lanthimos continues the style seen in The Lobster but with a thriller twist. Characters still speak in the same monotone with a deliberately anti-naturalist cadence. This can still lead to laughter at the sheer morbidity flowing from each deadpan delivery. Martin’s threats are spoken like a reading from a number from a phonebook, slow, clear, and punctuated. He becomes a dangerous presence despite his size. He makes no physical aggressions and maintains a withdrawn posture. He seems resigned to the fate of Stevens family, not excited by it, and is completely stoic, often trying to present logical reasoning for why they must suffer. Keoghan, an Irish actor, maintains complete control of his body language and takes Martin from a potential red flag to an enigma of potentially sadistic capability.

The camera’s distance emphasizes the insignificance of the characters.

The film’s world feels sterile and foreboding. Lanthimos tracks his characters like Kubrick in the famous tricycle scene from The Shining but places his camera at a curiously elevated height with wide angle lenses. The camera, perched near the ceiling, looms over its subjects, making them tiny figures in a pristine, but cold and empty world. The hallways of Steven’s hospital are cavernous with rooms that dwarf the staff and patients. Lanthimos adds to this atmosphere with his use of music. The soundtrack uses heavy groans from a piano and violin screeches. Everything in the production hints at the ominous nature of the events to come.

The genre of the film is as inexplicable as its narrative. It features laugh out loud moments as characters bluntly and dryly describe their situation, flashes of body horror, but, more than anything, a creeping paranoia. Like with the family from last year’s The Witch, when the kids suddenly fall ill, distrust begins to grow. What is happening and how? What are they willing to do to stop it? Farrell and Kidman’s relationship goes from loving, or at least whatever loving means in a Lanthimos film, to jagged and explosive. There are no clear answers about on what is going on and what should happen next. Instead, their suspicion breeds desperation as we witness how quickly – and violently – a family unit can be upended by an outside force.

4/5 stars.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017): A Delightfully Grisly Trip to Prison

This a brutal movie and not for the easily offended. Coming off a similarly violent debut, director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) has made his genre preferences clear. He’s interested in the plain viciousness of violence and his newest film gives him ample situations to execute his vision. Vince Vaughn (The Internship) plays Bradley, a former boxer and reformed drug runner forced back into the trade to support his family after losing his job. When a drug deal with a foreign syndicate goes wrong, Bradley finds himself facing years in prison, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Once inside, he is forced into a serious of deadly confrontations on the prison ground.

Vaughn proves himself to be a capable lead in the difficult role. It’s one thing to play a criminal, but it’s another to be a genuinely sympathetic one. Plenty of gangster films do this by idolizing the lead’s actions and basking in their success and its copious financial rewards, but Zahler isn’t about to glorify criminality. Bradley’s crimes are forced by necessity, not desire. He returns to running drugs only after losing his job in a poor economy and the violence he begets in prison is a result of an unfortunate situation. Vaughn plays the character with a quick-thinking practicality. When placed in difficult position, he determines what action is needed, then immediately takes it. The complete lack of emotion or pleasure he gets from fighting others combined with his precarious circumstances, allow him to be likable despite his aggressive behavior.

Bradley’s pragmatic demeanor separates him from other movie criminals.

Zahler is a director that never turns his camera away from the action. Most films would cut on the impact of a punch or away from the results of a violent beatdown, but not here. Zahler takes great pride in offering close ups of the carnage others would avoid. The audience will flinch, but he doesn’t. The hits here hurt. This isn’t PG-13 combat and limbs are broken, shattered, and snapped in the wrong direction, revealing the bones underneath. Faces get even worse treatment. They are beaten, bloodied, and, in many cases, smashed, with the aftermath put on display throughout. As a director of fight scenes, Zahler does an admirable job. He favors wide, unbroken shots with tight choreography that feels grounded and efficient.

The violence can sometimes cross over into slight comedy as it escalates, but it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a real joy to watch, wince, and, occasionally, clap at the brutality onscreen. The level of savagery almost pushes the movie into the grindhouse category, but Zahler isn’t interested in campy thrills. His appreciation for bloodshed rests atop a solid narrative foundation. This puts him in a group of new filmmakers (like Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier) that bring A-level talent to what could be B-grade genre films. His ability to balance character with action makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 a treat for both thriller and genre fans. The violent assaults and sympathetic lead create an enticing and delightfully grisly trip to prison.

4/5 stars.

Our Souls at Night (2017): A Disappointing Waste of Talent

Netflix’s newest film continues their shaky track record when it comes to features. Based on the novel by Kent Haruf and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), the film centers on two elderly people in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Louis (Robert Redford; The Sting) and Addie (Jane Fonda; 9 to 5) have both lost their spouses years earlier and live alone. One afternoon, Addie visits Louis and makes a strange proposal. She wants him to sleep with her. Not anything more than that, just sleep. She is tired of being alone and wants someone to lay next to at night. What follows is their growing relationship and the effect it has on their humble lives.

It’s rare to see a cast this talented fall so flat. Seasoned and celebrated actors like Fonda and Redford, who have worked together onscreen before, completely lack the naturalism required. The soft-spoken, but straightforward dialogue of the book is mostly retained in the script, but is ruined by the delivery. If this was their feature debut, Fonda and Redford would not be getting calls from casting agents anytime soon. Their attempts at laconic delivery come off as awkward and surprised. They read their lines as if each statement is really a question and it kills any hope of establishing the mood required. The performances are so disconnected that if one actor had recorded their parts on a green screen and was later composited into the footage, I’d believe it. There are a few brief glimpses of the chemistry that could and should have existed, but the majority of the film is missing this vital ingredient.

The unfortunate lack of chemistry kills the movie’s emotional center.

Haruf’s novel was not the most obvious choice to adapt. At its core, it is a simple story without any of the trappings of typical movie. There are no villains, no major conflict, and no real stakes to speak of. The novel was a story of two lonely people near the end of their lives finding solace through companionship. What separated it from other books was its attention to detail. Haruf was able to capture the longing Louis and Addie had and the emptiness they felt without someone else in their lives. He knew the profound impact that a true emotional connection can have on a life and expressed it amidst the most modest of settings, but his work has been diluted in the film adaptation to the point of blandness.

None of Batra’s personal style is present here. His first two films took a gentle, compassionate approach to his characters and world which made him a perfect fit for this material, yet that approach is absent. The film is completely forgettable and misses the nuances of Louis and Addie’s relationship. The soft focus and earnest, but hushed speaking of his previous works are replaced by a flat production. Batra has put forth a workmanlike effort on what could have been his breakout feature. The obvious lack of interest behind the camera is a continual letdown as the movie settles for mediocrity. It may not be one of the worst films of the year, but it is certainly one of the most disappointing.

2/5 stars.

Brad’s Status (2017): A Self-centered Midlife Crisis

At some point in life, we look at what we have and wonder, “What else could I be?” It’s natural to compare ourselves to others and think about the alternate lives we could have led. Written and directed by Mike White (Year of the Dog), Brad’s Status is about a middle-aged man doing just that. When Brad (Ben Stiller; Zoolander) takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams; Paper Towns) to visit colleges, he starts to think back to his own college days and where his close group of friends ended up. One is a political commentator and author of several best-selling books, another owns his own hedge fund, and the last sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii at the age of 40. Brad, on the other hand, started a small non-profit and lives a normal life in Sacramento with wife and son.

Brad’s Status is the quintessential midlife crisis film. Brad feels like he missed his potential and his comparisons to the illustrious lives of his college friends are relatable because of his chosen profession. While others chose the money and power of politics, finance, or tech, he chose service to others and is now living through the consequences of that decision. The central question is not only what could he have done to become successful, but rather how could he have done the most good. Does his non-profit, scraping together financing from reluctant donors, make a difference? Brad’s only employee turns in his two-week notice and remarks “I’d rather make a lot of money and donate it than beg people for their money.” The realities created from a life of service versus self-interest and how decisions made for altruistic reasons can lead to middling personal outcomes is the film’s most sympathetic angle.

Stiller and Abrams have natural chemistry as father and son.

To a certain extent, Brad’s struggle is an exercise in solipsism. He only views the world in terms of how it affects him, sometimes even forgetting about his loved ones. This disregard can become callous when he looks at the effect of his relationship with his wife. One of his friends had a career-focused, ambitious spouse that, in Brad’s mind, forced his friend to push himself further in comparison. Brad’s wife is a loving, supportive partner but he wonders if her contentedness with their middle-class life held him back. This is the kind of reasoning that can often make Brad an unlikable character. He can resort to blaming others for his own failings. When issues with his personal success turn outward, it makes him seem less like tragic figure suffering for a noble cause and, especially when he is ungrateful towards his caring wife, more like a self-centered asshole.

Thankfully, the supporting cast eventually calls Brad on his bullshit. It’s a relief when even the college aged characters burst his bubble of self-absorption and point out his narrowmindedness, but his son is the main catalyst for change. Despite his age, Troy is a calm, self-assured individual and without his father’s crippling self-doubt. The realistic interplay between father and son is heartwarming as Troy’s confidence gives his dad hope and purpose. Regardless of his current position in life, Brad still made an impact on the world through raising his son. Some of the conclusions White comes to may be cliché, but his belief in the value of family and parenthood over material wealth still holds weight. It may not overcome a degree of navel-gazing, but, in an age of increasingly exhibitionist behavior, Brad’s Status is a worthwhile reminder of what defines true success.

3/5 stars.

mother! (2017): A Dizzying, Disturbing Descent

With only strange posters and cryptic trailers, details about mother! have been deliberately kept to a minimum. The new film from Darren Aronofsky is one of his stranger works. Picture the creeping suspicion from Rosemary’s Baby, the allegory of The Fountain, and paranoid jump scares like the refrigerator scene in Requiem for a Dream all mixed together with a continuously escalating sense of chaos. Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) plays the much younger wife of a poet (Javier Bardem; No Country for Old Men) who has been struggling with writer’s block. They live together in a secluded house that Lawrence is renovating while Bardem struggles to complete new material. Their peaceful isolation is broken when a strange man visits and stays for the night, bringing with him much more than expected.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s camera is fixated on Jennifer Lawrence. The film is shot in uncomfortably tight close-ups with an unstable handheld camera. Libatique employs a constantly moving technique that creates a dizzying effect. Like a lab rat desperately trying to escape a maze, the camera swerves from room to room with each movement revealing more sinister situations. Its swirling pans prevent the tension from ever receding as increasingly destructive events erupt into the frame. As Lawrence, in her best performance to date, attempts to defuse her growing predicaments, her pure, altruistic love for her husband comes into stark contrast against the predatory beings intruding into her world.

Lawrence is sympathetic as the only humane character in a world of selfishness.

This is film that begs the question “how did this get made?”. And by a major studio! It may be that Paramount was hoping to stumble onto Black Swan levels of box office success, but that film didn’t contain anything nearly as divisive. mother! becomes unapologetically twisted and downright mean. Characters suffer horrible mistreatment while others seem unconcerned which may repulse viewers unused to such transgressions. As things spiral out of control, the film never stops to explain itself. Rather than elucidate the purpose behind the disorienting thrills, the film argues that the thrills are themselves the purpose and comes to a recursive conclusion that may leave general audiences unsatisfied. mother! is a film to be appreciated as a bewildering experience rather than typical narrative.

Aronofsky has stated his intentions about the film representing climate change. Lawrence is supposed to be the embodiment of mother nature with her shameless abuse representing the damaging effect of a greedy, merciless mankind. This interpretation may help understand the film and it seems justified, but my initial thoughts went elsewhere. This is a story of the mad, all-consuming destruction wreaked by an artist. Bardem’s character’s supposed commitment to his writing is slowly revealed to be nothing more than self-absorption hiding behind a pretense of depth. Every action he takes is self-aggrandizing and he is completely dismissive of the support from Lawrence’s character. mother! is a takedown of the egotistical nature of art. It externalizes the ugliness and selfishness of people fixated on their own success. The often vile acts onscreen may be exaggerations, but they aren’t untruths. Aronofsky has created a dizzying, disquieting, and disturbing descent into the dark side of any artistic pursuit.

4/5 stars.

Dave Made a Maze (2017): Cardboard Sets and Cardboard Acting

With a weekend all to himself, Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist, creates an elaborate cardboard maze in his living room. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns, he tells her that he has been inside for three days and is unable to get out. Confused, she calls his friends over and they enter the maze only to get lost themselves.

The film’s most distinguishing trait is the look of the maze. It’s a twisting, handmade structure. First time director Bill Waterson created elaborate sets that are completely unified in their aesthetic. Inside the maze, everything is made from art supplies, including animals, monsters, and, occasionally, human parts. Characters bleed confetti and silly string instead of blood. The inventiveness and commitment to the aesthetic are the highlight of the film as each additional leg of their journey brings new designs. Watterson is able to get a surprising amount of variety from a limited set of materials by using different colors and patterns that prevent the maze from becoming plain. The standard obstacles, including booby traps and even a minotaur are present, but the corrugated look provides a fresh spin on each element.

The maze isn’t the only thing that appears to be built out of cardboard: the acting is just as stiff. Thune and Kumbhani have stilted, sometimes cringe-inducing, delivery and lack any noticeable chemistry. They seem like amateur actors in front of the camera for the first time. The script is no help either. Most characters are underwritten and the director relies on exaggerated reaction shots for development. The supporting cast is mostly one note. They are supposed to provide comic relief but are but each only has a single discernable, usually self-consciously quirky, trait that leaves them either forgettable or annoying.

The film is filled with overdone reactions like these.

The central metaphor is that of art being an all-consuming endeavor. Dave is described as someone who has never been able to finish any of his artistic goals and is still being supported by his parents despite being in his 30s. The maze is both his greatest creation and his burden. He doesn’t want to leave the maze because he hasn’t finished it yet and it is the only thing he feels he has come close to completing. The conclusions here are obvious, that an artist’s work envelops their life and that of their loved ones, and the film never goes beyond commentary that has already been done before. There are many, better films that have examined the psychology behind the tortured artist trope. By devoting its focus on the maze itself, the film is never able to develop Dave and his artistic struggles.

Watterson’s clear influence is the art-and-craft visuals of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but he lacks the ability to match Gondry’s emotion. In Gondry’s films, his elaborate designs are always reflections of a character’s creativity and mental state. They reveal as much about the character as any line of dialogue. The maze and its inhabitants don’t have this connection to Dave. As creative as they may be, the designs in the maze are used as pure spectacle which leaves the film feeling hollow. The poor emotional development of Dave’s struggle and the stiff performances leave the film more like a maze found on the back of a daily newspaper: quick, obvious, and unsatisfying.

2/5 stars.

Good Time (2017): An Ultra-Gritty Crime Caper

Good Time should really be called Tough Luck. Directed by brothers Ben and Josh Safdie (Heaven Knows What), the film follows two bottom-rung losers as they try to steal enough money to get away from their miserable lives. Connie (Robert Pattinson; Twilight) and his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) attempt to rob a local bank for $65,000. When their plan goes south, Connie decides to rescue Nick which leads to a string of progressively complicated situations as he fumbles each step along the way.

The Safdie brothers bring their realistic shooting style to the caper film. The word “gritty” is frequently thrown around to describe what appears as a more realistic shooting style, but in reality, it is a relative term. The concept is often associated with the crime films of Martin Scorsese and, in comparison to most slick, mainstream films, his works do appear more down to earth, but that is only because of the excessive sheen given to the visuals of a standard Hollywood picture. The Safdie brothers employ a style that can only be described as ultra-gritty. Their actors are mostly unknowns that look like regular people. They’re unkept and not particularly attractive. Even Pattinson, the former Twilight heartthrob, looks and acts like a lowlife and the change is refreshing. The extras and minor characters seem like regular, imperfect beings and the glamour-free appearances make Connie’s flight more intense because the setting is grounded in the real world.

Nothing about the brothers’ plans go as desired.

The New York City of the Safdie brothers is a downright shithole. This is a part of Queens far away from the haute intellectual settings of a Woody Allen film. The movie was shot on film and features a pronounced film grain, adding a scrappy, low-budget feel to the actions onscreen. The houses we see are cramped and rundown and the few glimpses of better situations are short-lived. These are the dirty streets of the lower class, filled with people in perpetual cycles of barely making it by. The cast that populates the city is uniformly excellent with the direct, curt behavior expected from the NYC working class. Safdie as Nick is unrecognizable and utterly convincing as a mentally challenged character with his vacant, disconnected stares and delayed reactions. In their previous film, the Safdie brothers followed heroin addicts slumming their way through the city and the realism of their repeated self-harm almost became repulsive. Here, the entertaining characters and Connie’s relatable motivation prevent the aesthetic from becoming unpleasant. Instead, it lifts the stakes and clearly distinguishes the film from others in the genre.

Despite their disparate visual styles, the Safdie brothers have made their own version of a Michael Mann film, specifically Thief. They even use a pounding electric score that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work. The main difference is the caliber of their characters. Their protagonists, unlike Mann’s professional criminals, are horribly flawed. Connie is shown to have the seeds of good ideas and is crafty enough to momentarily avoid capture, but is not intelligent enough to fully solve his problems. The mistakes he makes as his outlook worsens are believable, but only for a desperate hoodlum with some awful decision-making. His narrow escapes exacerbate his situation and dig himself further into a hole which, to some, will almost be comedic in its escalation, but to others will be equally thrilling. The rough, realistic settings and increasingly precarious getaway make for a uniquely grounded heist movie.

4/5 stars.