In a season when cineastes scramble to assemble “Best of the Decade” lists—a task that I personally find effectively impossible, to such an extent that my own attempt was preceded by clunky Google queries like “what good movies 2014”—I find myself drawn back, irrevocably, to two titles. And in particular, two lines from those titles, which communicate the vacillating, push-pull tension that has defined not only the 2010s writ large, but my more personal relationship to them.
The first is offered by Kristen Dunst’s catatonically depressed mystic Justine in Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic 2011 drama Melancholia, who, after learning that human life is set to be obliterated by a rogue planet careening towards our own, gripes, “The earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it.” The second comes courtesy Ethan Hawke’s (differently) depressed minister Reverend Toller in Paul Schrader’s (differently) apocalyptic 2018 drama First Reformed who, faced with environmental collapse and organized religion’s inability to manifest its mission of Biblical stewardship, anxiously protests, “Someone’s got to do something!” In a decade in which everything from politics to pop culture to the health and well-being of the earth, our home, seemed to only get worse, these sentiments speak to the polarities warring within the soul: the wry, wizened resignation to our own self-destruction, and a meaningful, if ultimately facile, desire to stand against that doom, however little, however late.
It’s a tension that also drives two of my favorite (and, incidentally, the finest) American films of this year: Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems and Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters. Like Melancholia and First Reformed, both are distinct, auteurist offerings that court mainstream popularity without at all sacrificing their makers’ passions or artistic personalities. And both crystallize, in different ways, not what being alive nowadays is about, or what it looks like, but how it feels.
Affect is the engine in Uncut Gems, which opens in an Ethiopian opal mine where a Beta Israeli black workman has been maimed in the procurance of a precious stone. It’s an auspicious opening for the Safdies, New York filmmakers whose previous films have almost exclusively offered hustler-level views of the five boroughs. And it serves to announce Gems as their priciest and biggest film to date—at once the culmination of a certain strain of tightly wound, extremely vivifying filmmaking that has netted them a considerable cinephile rep, and their introduction to a much wider audience (the film, following a short theatrical window, is heading to Netflix).
Also auspicious are the film’s tone-setting credits, which see the camera burrowing into the hard-won opal and weaving through its shimmering mineralized crags as it if were a whole cosmos. We then exit on the other side, the camera pulling back in the midst of a middle-aged man’s colonoscopy. From rare crystals to malignant cysts, the sequence evokes the final shot of Barry Sonnenfeld’s original Men in Black, in which the camera zooms way out to reveal our own galaxy spiraling in a marble flung by enormous extraterrestrials. Uncut Gems likewise suggests that its action unfolds in a pocket universe nested inside of an asshole.
The asshole is NYC jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), whose potential cancer serves as the first of the film’s many clocks, beating relentlessly and with increasing aggravation toward the film’s bleak, inevitable conclusion. Howard is many things: family man, philanderer, scammer, sleazy stress-ball, proprietor of a Manhattan Diamond District boutique peddling pricey bling to rappers and NBA all-stars (including Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, playing a slightly younger version of himself). His wife (Idina Menzel) calls him “the most annoying person” she has ever met, and all Howard can do is tell her that makes sense. More than anything, he is a degenerate gambler, parlaying sizable paydays into strings of bad bets, chasing the thrill of endlessly upping the ante. For Howard, as Tom Sizemore’s thrill-seeking bank robber put it in Micheal Mann’s Heat, “the action is the juice.” Money never sleeps and neither, it seems, does Howard.
If Howard embodies the America of the era, it’s in his constant liquidity, the way he keeps his money moving.
Much has been made of Uncut Gems’s propulsive, coke-binge energy. And with good reason. It’s the apex of the edgy, intense feeling the Safide brothers have been grinding across a series of features and shorts (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What, Good Time, etc.) tracking deadbeats, addicts, kleptomaniacs, and crooks flying by the seats of their pants, struggling to keep one step ahead of the law and their own self-sabotaging impulses. Late in Uncut Gems, a group of gangsters arrive at Howard’s work to shake him down for money he owes them. Foiled by his shop’s finicky, bulletproof security glass, they’re left trapped between two thick doors, watching helplessly as Howard suffers the anxious paces of a playoff basketball game on which he’s wagered heavily. It works as a compressed metaphor for both Uncut Gems—which feels very much like being stuck in airless cube watching Adam Sandler react to a basketball—and the Safdies’ existent canon.
One may (uncharitably, I think) argue that the Safdies’ ability to entwine terror and excitement, to rework acute anxiety as extreme joy (and vice-versa), is the only tool at their disposal. Mileage may well vary on the “entertainment value” of profoundly exacting movies about unlikable characters, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the Safdies’ films, and Uncut Gems especially, work not just because they’re effective in conjuring and conveying the feeling of skin-of-the-teeth pressure suffered by their characters, but because that feeling is especially salient. On a basic level, when so much mainstream cinema fails to conjure or convey anything at all, the ostensible annoyance and unpleasantness of a Safdies movie is powerful, following the despairing contemporary wisdom that feeling anything proves preferable to feeling nothing at all.
Uncut Gems is almost imperceptibly a period piece, set in 2012. It’s a move that not only allows Garnett to appear at (near) peak performance during a high stakes playoff run, but ratchets down any lingering socio-political stakes. There’s no specter of Trumpism looming over the film, or much else superficially connecting it to “right now.” Howard’s story unfolds in a period of (relative) American prosperity, when the economic crisis of 2008 had abated and the economy was growing. If Howard embodies the America of the era, it’s in his constant liquidity, the way he keeps his money moving. He is an avatar of the idea of financialization. (The historical relationship between Jewishness and finance capitalism has, of course, produced all manner of anti-Semitic stigmas, which the Safdies and their star subvert while giddily indulging in them, further stoking the film’s feeling of volatility.) Howard’s wealth exists only in the abstract, perpetually rolling from one deal to the next. And the value of his cheesy wares (including a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted Furby) is produced only through their perception of value, which is itself contingent, it should be said, on the perceived celebrity of black athletes and rappers. Even the Ethiopian opal at the film’s narrative center emits a mystical aura, entrancing anyone who stares into it.
Howard’s sickness is not sports or gambling, but the excess of modern capital itself. Because while gambling may well be a disease, it is, to paraphrase Sandler’s fellow Saturday Night Live co-star Norm MacDonald, the only disease where you can win a bunch of money. Chasing this thrill creates—for both the character and the viewer—a feeling of unceasing anxiety and exhilaration, a tension that seems as if it will never resolve. In a decade-capping essay, The Guardian’s Howard Beckett described the last ten years as those of “perpetual crisis,” marked at once by interminable chaos and sense of eternal stagnation. Howard Ratner is the definitive character of that decade: locked in perpetual crisis, frantically running in place.
Yet he has what so many other products of the 2010s, real or fictional, lack. Howard, like the best cinematic antiheroes, possesses an admirable amoral clarity. He’s aware of his compulsions, and how they aggrieve anyone locked in his orbit. He knows he’s an asshole. When Garnett calls him out on his bullshit, and his active role in the exploitation of black workers in Ethiopia, Howard merely smiles that wide, toothy, bleached smile and offers what might as well be the film’s thesis statement: “This is me. This is how I win.” Like Melancholia’s Justine, his nihilism is the product of a matter-of-fact lucidity regarding how, exactly, the world works. Like any worthy sports bettor, Howard knows the score.
A question rings out late in Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters: “Do you know the score?”
It’s asked by a middle-aged, middle-American man named Buck Bailey (playing himself), who has suffered severe facial deformities as the result of the criminal poisoning perpetuated by all-American chemical corporation DuPont, a cover-up that Dark Waters diligently exposes. He’s making idle chatter with Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) at a gas pump, inquiring about a sports game. But that’s not really what he’s talking about.
This chance meeting between the (real-life) Bailey and Ruffalo’s Bilott (the real-life attorney who selflessly avenged DuPont’s victims) has a rupturing effect. The fiction of the film splits, and the real world busts in. Corporations, protected by governments, knowingly poison people in pursuit of profit. It’s an inconvenient truth that Ruffalo’s lawyer attempts to rebuff throughout Dark Waters, after initially being tipped off by a snarling farmer (Bill Camp) whose gruff tone and hardline belief in corporate conspiracy theories make him seem like a Carhartt-clad Alex Jones. Later in the film, Bilott explodes in vexed annoyance outside of a Cincinnati Benihana. He hates himself because he’s forced to reckon with the fact that a reality so well-guarded by droopy men in pricey suits could be self-evident to a guy with a twelfth-grade education. It’s really as plain as 1980s hardcore songs make it out to be: billionaires boost their bottom-lines at the expense of the employees whose labor they exploit, and ply us with well-paying jobs, cash settlements, and glossy catalogues advertising new furniture. We all play along because doing so is comfortable, because living life is easier if you don’t have to own it as your own. And it’s that simple. Do you know the score?
Dark Waters is one of 2019’s sneakiest films. On its face, it’s an entirely unsexy legal drama crossbreed of The Insider and Erin Brockovich, similarly bolstered by “based on true events” bona fides, starring a bunch of pasty, dumpy actors (Ruffalo, Camp, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber) frowning in brownish light, curiously helmed by a queer American filmmaker whose taste runs more toward the experimental (Superstar, Poison, I’m Not There) and sumptuous (Far From Heaven, Carol, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). What scans like for-hire hackwork is anything but. In his 1995 masterpiece Safe, Todd Haynes depicts a woman seemingly allergic to modern life. There is an ambient menace wafting through American existence, and America itself, which William S. Burroughs memorably described as “old and dirty and evil.” In Dark Waters, Haynes gives that evil a name: capital.
In the absence of anything better, empty acts of will can substitute for meaning.
Like Howard Ratner, Dark Waters exhibits an admirable clarity of purpose. It can feel frustratingly adolescent, wining about how large companies don’t care about “the little people.” Acknowledging this, let alone attempting to rectify it, feels a little bit embarrassing. It’s like mewling about the ever-inflating price of popcorn at the movies. We are conditioned to accept such annoying and oppressive truths as a facts of life: immutable ideologies, states of nature, unworthy of complaint. Anyone who even dares to demand better, to howl “Someone’s got to do something!” is made to feel like a fool. We are conditioned to buy into the liberal belief that it must be more complicated, that the real, adult world is made up of complexities and nuances that can only be divined by mastheads of self-important David Frums. But as Bilott and anyone watching Dark Waters realizes, it isn’t complicated. It’s simple. And that simplicity offers no repose. Dark Waters is the damning true story of a man who ruins his own life because he’s stupid enough to stand up for what he believes in, because he’s dopey enough to believe in anything in the first place.
Taken together, Dark Waters and Uncut Gems offer complementary visions of our epoch of perpetual crisis. The Safdies indulge an intoxicating nihilism, following a character who is refreshingly undeluded about his addiction to the pursuit of wealth. Haynes, meanwhile, articulates something of the futility of opposing that nihilism. Bilott’s motivation seems no less pathological than Ratner’s—his heroism forms in a vacuum. In one memorable sequence, his wife (Anne Hathaway, in full, scenery-munching, theater-kid mode) drags him to church, where he sits slumped over a hymnal, entirely uncomforted by the strictures of religion. He fights for people because he has nothing much else to do. His mania emerges in his daring decision to oppose the numbing of affect to which we are all habituated. For Bilott, too, the action is the juice.
Where Gems reproduces the anxious thrill of a present that seems like an unending parade of stuff, Waters reveals, with harrowing perspicuity, the comparable anxiety of attempting to oppose that stuffiness. Our world feels so busy and so empty, all at the same time. We are trapped in a state of hyperactive stagnation. And what’s to be done? Pulled between the death-drive of self-destruction and the urge to fend off that urge, we are left utterly helpless. Stock pieties and conventional moralities suggest that the latter is more noble: that the defense of goodness and decency, however fruitless, is preferable to shrugging into decadence and defeat, to fatally accepting the apocalyptic belief that the earth is irredeemably horrible, and that there’s nothing much worth grieving.
“The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer,” says First Reformed’s Reverend Toller, in a knowingly Merton-esque turn of phrase. In the absence of anything better, empty acts of will can substitute for meaning. It is, perhaps, the coldest comfort offered in a world growing forever colder. It’s better than nothing, if barely.