How the Safdie Brothers Test the Limits of Our Empathy

The duo's shockingly human characters push the audience to question their innate support of a protagonist.

Good Time

The duo’s shockingly human characters push the audience to question their innate support of a protagonist.

After seeing the Safdie brothers’ 2017 film Good Time, I felt rattled. The film can have that effect on a person. The frenetic plot, pulsing score, and impressive ease and speed at which things go wrong require a lot from a viewer. However, the most arduous task the brothers, Josh and Benny, lay at the audience’s feet is whether they will empathize with the near-sociopath leading man, played by Robert Pattinson.

Looking back at two of their earlier films, Heaven Knows What and Daddy Longlegs; this is something they ask of their audience often. The heist thriller Good Time centers on Connie Nikas, a manipulative thief on the lam while trying to get his mentally handicapped brother out on bond. Heaven Knows What is a drama about a homeless heroin addict Harley and her turbulent relationship based on the life of the lead actress Arielle Holmes. An autobiographical film, Daddy Longlegs takes place during the two weeks a year an immature father Lenny has custody of his young sons. Ronald Bronstein, who plays the father, is a frequent collaborator of the Safdie brothers, co-editing all three films and co-writing Good Time and Heaven Knows What.

None of their protagonists make it easy to root for them. They can be selfish and dangerous. They are incredibly fallible and one-track minded to a fault. They cross ethical, social, and legal lines for their benefit. How then do we empathize with these flawed leads? Can we negotiate with ourselves to find that integral connection?

How we empathize with characters.

In one of his many Crash Course videos, John Green claims that “reading is always an act of empathy.” The same is true for watching a film as we are trained to almost instinctually align ourselves with the protagonist. It happens outside of narrative fiction as well. On the news or in real life, we can grossly mischaracterize a person by cherrypicking elements of their life that fit a story we’ve been told before. During a discussion at the New York Film Festival, Josh mentioned his love for the show Cops and how one episode about prison escapees was like “watching basically the country root for two guys who ran over people on purpose with a car.” This is only possible because the viewers were able to latch onto some aspect of the story surrounding the men. Whether it’s the shared feeling of being trapped and wanting to flee or their deep bond, a primal part of the viewer recognized themselves in the two men.

Empathy is the core bond we share with the protagonist. In Robert McKee’s renowned book Story, he argues that empathy is “the vicarious linking of ourselves to a fictional human being” which allows us, or perhaps requires us, to test and stretch our humanity. Not only do we support these characters, but we also use them as a vehicle for ourselves to safely try new things and “live lives beyond our own.” This exposure is crucial to the Safdie brothers’ films as they tend to highlight what may have previously been deemed “un-cinematic” characters. It’s easy in real life to not dignify someone like Harley with respect, let alone understanding or kindness. Centering a film on someone in her position forces the audience to empathize, which may bleed into the viewer’s outlook outside the film.

What lies between hero and anti-hero.

While the Good Time star may see the lead characters in these films as antiheroes, they tend to be more complex than that. At NYFF, Josh discussed how Connie is introduced as a hero, removing his brother from a therapy session he feels is going to harm him. Connie then proceeds to solely cause mayhem in his wake. But he still never feels like a typical anti-hero. Perhaps the Safdie brothers have created a fresh new version of the archetype. However, it seems more like Connie, as well as Harley and Lenny, resides in a gray area that feels distinctly human. It helps that their goals are the goals of heroes: rescuing a brother, being with that one true love, becoming a better father. We’ve seen these inner needs before, just never pursued so amorally or presented so complexly.

This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. It is easy to have both for a traditional hero, someone who is likable and relatable. It is far more difficult to acknowledge the seedier aspects of ourselves when confronted with a character defined by that same trait. However, if the audience can get over the hurdle of likability, McKee states that the audience will “instinctively want the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.”

New ways to garner empathy.

While forgoing the traditional hero vs. anti-hero path, the Safdie brothers also make attempts at attracting empathy from the audience in a less typical manner. A classic move to get the audience on the side of an unsympathetic character is to show their vulnerability. Picture a meltdown scene where the lead is so broken and overwhelmed by what’s happening, they cry and are finally emotionally honest. It so easily could have been in any of their films if they were lesser directors. But the duo tends to choose logos over pathos. As Benny mentioned in the panel, each of their characters has logic to what they are doing. Need to go to work, or you’ll be fired, and you have no one to watch your kids when they wake up? Easy solution give them a tiny, tiny bit of a sleeping pill you take.

When Lenny faces the consequences of that dangerous decision, he doesn’t cry and hold his kids, promising to be a better man. The duo doesn’t try to constantly reaffirm the audience’s belief in the character. They don’t mask a blatant emotional appeal to comfort the audience as something more. Watching one of their movies is not a passive viewer experience, in the best way! As Bronstein said, they have created these moments when they put the audience “in a spot.” Drugging your kids, attempting suicide to appease your boyfriend, seducing a sixteen-year-old girl. They drop us in a complex spot; it’s up to us if we can find our way out of it.

The more human the character, the more empathy they require.

People are incredibly frustrating creatures. They make mistakes and rarely learn from them. When Harley is left by her boyfriend again—this time on a bus leaving townshe goes back to where she started. The cycle will most likely begin again, though now without him. People never react the way you think they will either. After Lenny finds out his sons are in a near coma due to the pills, he impulsively lets out a chuckle, so shocked by what he’s hearing. These moments are what make the characters feel human. The unflattering moments that people existing without authors usually run into on a regular basis.

While it can be relaxing to watch a film where you don’t have to encounter the worst aspects of humanity, there’s a depth and realism to flaws. McKee states that “the audience identifies with deep character, with innate qualities revealed through choice under pressure.” And that’s just what the brothers do. In every film, they create a narrative pressure cooker of sorts: one night to rescue a brother, an unsustainable lifestyle, two weeks alone with two kids. They also create incredibly detailed characters whose full life and history you can feel brimming below the surface. For Lenny and Harley, they had two real people with pasts inspiring the characters. For Connie, they took the time to map out every minute of the character’s life to create one. Even when a character makes a horrible decision, the audience can feel the history justifying the choice.

Who knows what exactly goes into the alchemy that they’ve mastered to get an audience to root for a character committing such wrongdoings. What is certain is that we have to look inward to find our support and empathy for them. Since the brothers never fully demonize or celebrate the actions of their leads, it is up to us as the audience to reckon with their choices. After watching Good Time followed by Heaven Knows What and Daddy Longlegs, all I knew was that I felt like I had been covertly reassembled. As if all my bits and pieces got jumbled in the viewing process, forcing me to rearrange and make room for others.

Excels at only watching the same three shows.