The Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What was one of the singular films of VIFF 2014, a harrowing, grimy, close-up look at the life of a homeless junkie and her estranged boyfriend, enlivened by a remarkable performance from Arielle Holmes, upon whose life the film was largely based. With a pounding score and aggressive handheld close-up images from cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film delivered a kind of extreme realism, like a Neveldine/Taylor movie for the socially conscious art house crowd. The Safdies’ follow-up, which premiered at Cannes and opens at SIFF this week, is more explicitly a genre film, if only because instead of a real person playing the lead, they now have a bona fide movie star, Robert Pattinson. It’s a One Crazy Night story, with Pattinson digging himself ever deeper into trouble in the wake of a bank robbery he pulls with his brother, played by Benny Safdie. During the escape Benny is arrested, and later hospitalized after getting into a fight in jail. Pattinson tries to sneak him out of the hospital, which leads to the kinds of unanticipated snags and increasing lunacy that is the hallmark of this kind of film (the movie’s poster explicitly points to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours). As an exercise in suspense filmmaking, the movie is excellent, the music (this time by Oneohtrix Point Never) and Williams’s images perfectly suited to the manic nervousness and driving obsessions of the scenario. Pattinson is, as always, equal parts charismatic and deeply disturbing (would be interesting to pair this with his other great city film, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). The supporting cast as well is marvelously weird, headlined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi, but also including newcomers like Taliah Webster, Eric Peykert, Peter Verby, and Buddy Duress (who was also in Heaven Knows What), who has rightfully drawn comparison’s to the great oddball character actor Timothy Carey. One performance though has me baffled, and that is Benny Safdie’s as Pattinson’s developmentally- and hearing-impaired brother. I don’t know what to make of the film’s bookends, with Benny in a hospital undergoing treatment, first answering free-association questions from his psychiatrist (Verby), later in a group exercise. It’s been a couple weeks and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for these scenes, but they don’t feel right to me at all. But in-between them lies the most exciting American movie of the year so far.
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