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Before ‘Good Time,’ the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Daddy Longlegs’ Resurrected the New York Movie

As the sibling directors prepare for a prime slot in competition at Cannes, we look back at the movie that defines their talent.

“Daddy Longlegs”

This is the first part of a series exploring significant films from the careers of directors showing new work at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

By most estimations, the image of New York as a scrappy bohemia filled with neurotic, obsessive loners peaked in the seventies, with the palpable grittiness of early works by Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara and John Cassavetes providing a window into a jagged urban underworld that no longer exists. If that’s the true, sibling directors Josh and Ben Safdie must have arranged quite the seance to resurrect it.

Over the course of a decade, the co-founders of a New York film collective have found fresh angles into the manic personalities of inner life, from two-bit thieves to failing parents and junkies, and their style only crystalizes as they move along. An old tradition lives again.

At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, the Safdies took their approach to a whole new level of visibility with “Good Time,” which co-stars no less than Robert Pattinson as a desperate bank robber struggling to get his brother out of jail over the course of a single frantic night. It’s rather a remarkable feat that the Safdies, whose microbudget work was predominantly a film festival secret until 2014’s mind-bending drug odyssey “Heaven Knows What,” shared their latest work to a Cannes jury that includes Will Smith, Jessica Chastain and Pedro Almodovar. But the Safdies’ prominence at Cannes has been a long time coming.

The brothers quietly premiered their discursive feature “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” at SXSW in 2008, then later screened it at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, where they were the only American filmmakers screening in the section. The movie, in which Josh starred as an aimless kleptomaniac, showed their attentiveness to small moments in the lives of hapless, self-destructive introverts. But it wasn’t until two years later with “Daddy Longlegs” that their talent truly came into focus.

The dark comedy stars “Frownland” director Ronnie Bronstein as single father Lenny, who wanders the dirtiest New York City streets and lurks in the shadows of his mangy apartment, alternately grumbling and cackling at his endless misfortunes. A deadbeat dad who can’t take care of his two young kids for more than an hour before doing something horribly wrong, he’s a slapstick figure whose circumstances are inherently tragic. Hiding behind a mess of untended curls and constantly searching eyes, Lenny is the ultimate aging slacker, a bohemian loner with no place to hide.

“Daddy Longlegs”

Bronstein’s performance puts a face on the generational bridge inherent to the context of the Safdies’ work. The immovable scowl that crosses his mug recalls John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise,” while Lenny’s ongoing frustration turns him into the beast of New York underground angst epitomized by “Mean Streets” and its ilk. The wandering narrative at times simply hangs out in Lenny’s reckless existence, but it also follows him on a series of mini-adventures in parenting that take a horrific twist in the third act. Now confident that they could build a world of busy corners and disheveled people barreling through them, the Safdies found a way to tell gripping stories within them.

One year later, one of their peers, Lena Dunham, unleashed a New York vision of her own with “Tiny Furniture,” which paved the way for “Girls.” But it was “Daddy Longlegs” that brought the New York movie back to the global arena, premiering at Directors Fortnight to a warm reception that confirmed that their precise setting was more than just homage to a bygone era. The movie finds a restless form of poetry in off-kilter moments in crowded alleys and cramped apartments, with plot points involving the Roosevelt Island tram and a cameo by Abel Ferrara. The Safdies didn’t just worship old New York; they molded it into art.

Robert Pattinson in “Good Time”

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Unsurprisingly, Scorsese himself has signed on to produce the Safdies’ upcoming project “Uncut Gems.”  Until then, “Good Time” marks the latest promising chapter in a story they’ve been telling to a small but committed international crowd almost as long as they’ve been making movies.

No matter how their work continues to evolve, however, “Daddy Longlegs” remains a crucial embodiment of their skill — not only on the level of craftsmanship, but character as well. The movie shows a striking ability to delve into the daily hardships of unhappy people and turn them into exciting, unpredictable sagas, where the stakes are constantly uncertain and the only victory is the prospects of surviving another miserable day.

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