After first hearing that the Safdie Brothers (Josh & Benny) were following up their 2015 indie darling Heaven Knows What with a twist on their favorite 70s and 80s-era American classics that take place in New York City, I was a bit wary. These guys already made something that surpassed the tired old cliché that the city is a character itself. Heaven was and still is alive in many ways most films aren’t, as it’s a film derived from an innate sense of global economy on a macro and micro scale. It may have been revolving around two lovers with heroin addictions, but it screamed out to modern America and captured the ennui of the lower class.
That was until I saw their latest, of course. Good Time is both a natural progression of the Safdie Brothers’ scope and a rollicking, eh, good time. Imagine my elation to see these brothers, of whom I’m already very much in their stead, take influence from some of the best (Martin Scorsese and Walter Hill, to name two) and successfully integrate their empathy-driven style into one of the best films of the year. In their universe, everyone has a voice. Be it the strung-out junkie who just got out of jail or the black security guard constantly being usurped by two white robbers, the Safdies are very conscious of the class politics they’re playing with. So they take one of the biggest stars of our time, Robert Pattinson, and make him play someone at first thought to be harboring goodwill despite his worst intentions, and stretch the viewers’ patience until the breaking point, making you wonder if it was worth it at all to watch their new foil scheme and scheme again.
Good Time follows Connie Nikas (Pattinson), a bit of an opportunistic prick, as he weasels his way through another night in Queens. After breaking his mentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie, a revelation) out of therapy to rob a bank, things get a bit awry. I’ll spare you the spoilers but Connie ends up rubbing elbows with more than few people that could spell his demise.
Fashioned as another indie darling from indie darling studio A24, Good Time throws the audience in on the take with Connie as he purportedly does disgusting things to make a better life for his brother, who he believes is being marginalized and not taken care of as he should be. As you might expect, the other main players in the story are in fact the ones being marginalized. Whether Connie is conscious of that or not is a bit fuzzy, but it is clear that the Safdies believe it is integral to understanding their tactics. In Connie’s fantasy land, he’s the king of the universe, always getting away with things he wouldn’t had he been a different color. While the directing duo doesn’t make that so overbearing as to make the film have a blunt message, the context is clear. Above all, that doesn’t stop the pace and story from zipping along and meting out the most corporeal of pleasures. Feel bad about the events on screen or not, it all adds up to something so primal and unpredictable in instinct.
One of the radical things about the Safdie touch is their ability to switch back and forth between Connie’s fantasy world and reality. They blur into one another, almost serving something a lot more animated and didactic than Good Time ends up being. Whether it be a refraction of light coming down from the fluorescent entrance of a convenience store or the powerhouse flashback sequence that comes about midway through the film, the settings seem both of another plane and based in reality. This is partially why multiple of the gags being set up in a creepily funny and broken-down amusement park play off so well. How they shoot these settings, sometimes in fast and sweeping movements, is something a lot more honest than just being bravura. If you end up seeing this, pay attention to the disparity between that amusement park and the drab apartment building the story fills the final act with. The Safdies are the rare example that use 2:35 widescreen for all its worth, filling the frame not necessarily with things serving the story at the moment but things serving their off-kilter sense of reality.
That isn’t to say that the technical proficiency is what makes Good Time stand out the most. Pattinson predictably plays Connie as off-script as his character is written. After all, Connie is the one character we can’t really predict and that’s where one of the film’s greatest pleasures derives from. The performance he gives seems geared more towards cinéma vérité than just conventional storytelling. While that may sound good, just you wait until you say Buddy Duress’ performance as Ray, the chronic liar and junkie that Connie ends up sharing his night with. From his first appearance in what may be the funniest gag in the whole film, Duress is such a natural and indescribable force of nature, seemingly torn from the exact heightened reality that the Safdies operate on. Benny Safdie kills it as the make-it-or-break-it character, Nick. His disability could easily be kitschy and passed off as disengaging, yet Benny’s performance is all in the eyes and hushed tones, throwing off more emotion than most of the dialogue can carry.
It’s one thing to make a film with great inspiration and another to use that inspiration to harbor and hone a unique vision. While we applaud many genre knockoffs for their competence and retro-ness, Good Time made me feel like using genre clichés as a form of deceit may be the best (and coolest) thing anyone can do now. Enjoy the callbacks, stay for the pioneering.