What Anxiety-Inducing Cinema Can Teach Us About Our Own Anxieties
In his book “The Concept of Anxiety,” Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defines anxiety as both a restrictive and cathartic primal force. He describes the condition as “unfocused fear” and mentions how the possibility of doing something, even in the most terrifying of circumstances, can set off immense feelings of panic.
At the same time, the experience of anxiety can also be helpful and even constructive as a recognition of our autonomy, moving us from a state of un-self-conscious immediacy to self-conscious reflection. In other words, we can only become truly aware of ourselves through our anxiety.
Of course, it’s hard to see any positive value of anxiety when there’s so much to be worried about right now. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that has no clear sign of stopping. The United States underwent one of the most intense and divisive presidential elections in its history, the final results of which took days to reveal. The aftermath of George Floyd’s unjust death cracked open a long-protected shell of systemic racism and triggered massive worldwide protests. These ongoing political and cultural stressors are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that they’ve become constant sources of anguish, trickling their way into everyday conversations and Twitter threads.
But as hopeless as uprooting the oppressive systems responsible for our collective suffering may seem, these current events have, for better or worse, pushed us to be more conscientious citizens. They’ve prompted us to resist complacency, remain informed, and reclaim the corrupt power from the corrupt and powerful.
In a way, we are fulfilling Kierkegaard’s theory: our anxiety about the state of the world has awakened both our flight and fight responses. Interestingly enough, this unprecedented shift in our public consciousness brings to mind an emerging trend of “anxiety cinema,” a subgenre of films that deal with different types of anxiety on a direct or subtextual level. To speak more plainly, I’m talking about movies like Josh and Benny Safdie’s crime thrillers Good Time and Uncut Gems, Charlie Kaufman’s psychodrama I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Amy Seimetz’s existential horror flick She Dies Tomorrow.
These films not only focus explicitly on anxiety-related issues pertinent to the Discourse, but they also provide a rich context to the various anxieties we face on a day-to-day basis. The Safdie Brothers in particular are deft at illustrating illuminating truths about the anxieties that drive us to be our worst selves. Within their engrossingly gritty and vibrant narratives, the Safdies effectively locate both the humanity and cruelty embedded in desperate antiheroes who are tethered to their surroundings and impulses because of their specific anxieties.
In the nerve-racking Good Time, the anxiety of imprisonment compels Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) to hide from the police while attempting to rescue his developmentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) from Rikers Island after the two botched a robbery. From the very beginning of the film, Connie’s dread of captivity is built into the physical and psychological framework that encapsulates the Safdie’s kaleidoscopic portrait of New York.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots Good Time in either claustrophobic closeups or aerial wide shots, highlighting Connie’s confined circumstances and limiting his mobility to cheat conviction and avoid suspicion. Vertical and horizontal lines often appear in the form of traffic lane markers, blinds, and parking lots, further symbolizing Connie’s constriction into tight corners. Even as Connie lies persistently and assumes multiple identities to evade capture, his actions lead to an inevitable but nevertheless awe-inspiring downfall that is expressed both figuratively and literally via a supporting character’s accidental suicide in the film’s climax.
When Connie is arrested, he stares down the camera in a haunted daze, slowly coming to terms with the nauseating reality that his anxiety has caused more harm than good. This final character scene acts as a pretty stark moral condemnation of his wrongdoings, but it could also be read as a mirror to the audience, one that asks us to look inward and identify our own ugly, impulsive choices in trying to help our loved ones, only to end up hurting them more. Along with its dissonant sound design and Daniel Lopatin’s heart racing score, Good Time is practically the cinematic equivalent of anxiety itself, a nonstop flurry of fury that doesn’t let up until its emotional purge of an ending.
The Safdie’s inspired and polished follow-up Uncut Gems is just as anxiety-inducing, if not more so. The film represents an expansion and continuation of Good Time’s moral murkiness and aesthetic abrasiveness, throwing more emotional complexity, overlapping dialogue, dynamic camerawork, and synth-heavy music into the mix.
Here, Jewish diamond dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is the primary agent of chaos, placing bets around town while simultaneously trying to pay off overdue debts. Similar to Connie, Howard’s anxiety is rooted in doing whatever is necessary to get what he wants, consequences be damned. Both men are seasoned con artists and masters of manipulation, cunningly and aggressively weaseling their way out of sticky situations and often causing collateral damage in the mayhem. However, unlike Connie, Howard is not focused on saving anyone. He is addicted to the hustle and thrill of his cutthroat transactional lifestyle and treats almost every one of his relationships as opportunities for exploitation. His anxiety is self-imposed, a primitive and destructive urgency to satisfy his own desires with a complete disregard toward who it affects.
Those desires are projected onto a rare black opal that Howard acquires early in the film, the so-called “uncut gem.” In addition to the garish collection of jewelry that he strives to sell to potential client Kevin Garnett (playing himself), Howard’s obsessive preoccupation with the opal reflects his greatest fear: he can only feel true security through possession. Without it, he’s forced to confront the emptiness of his life and, perhaps more abstractly, his cosmic insignificance. It’s hard to imagine sympathizing with someone this, well, unsympathetic, but the Safdies complicate our perception of Howard’s irrational, borderline sociopathic behavior by showing his inability to connect with those he hurts the most. He is human after all, and at his lowest, we witness him making pitiful attempts to reconcile with his resentful wife (Idina Menzel) and flighty mistress (Julia Fox).
Sandler’s mainstream appeal and movie-star charisma also help forgive the bad parts of Howard’s character, but the real tragedy comes in the end when Howard’s mega-sized bet on the Celtics culminates in both an ecstatic victory and a devastating loss. Right as he earns over a million dollars from the wager, his brother-in-law’s merciless henchman Phil (Keith Williams Richards) abruptly murders Howard after being held hostage in Howard’s store vestibule. Contrary to Connie’s arrest, Howard is not offered a chance to come face-to-face with his actions and redeem himself. Instead, the audience must grapple with his violent, nihilistic demise and discern it as a punishment of someone so consumed by their anxiety that it costs them their life. It begs the question: Can we ever really achieve true inner peace if we are ultimately destined to lose ourselves in our “unfocused fear”?
Both I’m Thinking of Ending Things and She Dies Tomorrow seem to offer a potential answer to that predicament. In contrast to the Safdies’ loud, brash approach, Kaufman and Seimitz opt for something equally unsettling but much quieter and more existential.
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman finds unexpected serenity within a dissolving romance between an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons), which, as it turns out, is just one of several fabricated thoughts deteriorating inside the mind of a lonely, dying janitor. She Dies Tomorrow embodies an equally surreal sentiment around death, conveying that fear through a young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) whose paranoia that she will die soon ends up literally infecting everyone around her. These stripped-down narratives allow us to breathe a little and consider the possibility that dealing with, and subsequently submitting to, our anxieties can be strangely vindicating and even liberating. When we learn to accept the inevitable—the dread of aging, the finality of a relationship, our own eventual expiration dates—we can feel at ease with our discomfort. It’s a bit of a knotty paradox to grasp, but Kaufman and Seimitz recognize it as a crucial part of getting through the clusterfuck of existence.
Addressing our own anxieties—whether personal or global, financial or political, familial, or romantic—is an uncomfortable but necessary experience. Doing so demands that we come to grips with our biggest flaws and deepest insecurities, the ones that pressure us to make hasty decisions or isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.
These four films embody the paradoxical anguish and catharsis of anxiety through varying execution, but synthesized together, they seem to reach the same verdict: If we don’t take hold of our anxieties, they will take over us. We can be like Connie and Howard, unwilling and unable to harness our unfocused fears and letting them corrode our souls from the inside out. Or we can be like the characters in I’m Thinking of Ending Things and She Dies Tomorrow, open to accepting the melancholy of our mortality and how bittersweet our imperfections.
It’s up to us to decide which avenue to take.