Milo Garner reviews the Safdie Brothers’ latest film.
Like the Safdie Brothers’ last film, Heaven Knows What, Good Time is primarily set on the streets of New York. But opposing the stark realism of the former is a neon-drenched nightmare in the latter, as we plunge into an ever-escalating heist thriller. The film opens with Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie, co-director) undergoing what seems to be some much-needed therapy, before his wayward brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) lurches into frame and pulls him out of the room. This is the falling of the first domino, setting into motion a series of events that neither might have predicted. What follows is an After Hours-esque escapade, and a night that refuses to end.
Complicating this initial scene is the nature of Nick and Connie’s relationship. Nick suffers from a nondescript mental disability, and is easily swayed by his despicable-if-caring brother’s influence. An alarm bell is immediately apparent upon seeing a director taking it upon themselves to act in such a role, but luckily Safdie manages a performance subtle enough to avoid any particularly egregious characterisations. Beside the opening section this character also spends most of the film’s runlength off-screen, which might well be for the best. Shortly after leaving therapy, the brothers are seen robbing a bank, apparently to fulfil a vague sort of plot to go off and ‘live in the woods’. Whether this is true or one of Connie’s many cons (whence his name derives, according to the directors) remains unexplored, but regardless, Nick is caught by the law, and thrown in prison. Being just about smart enough to realize prison is not somewhere someone with Nick’s condition will thrive, Connie takes it upon himself to get him out – through bail or otherwise – as soon as possible. And it is this mission that occupies him for the endless night to follow. While a sound plot in basis, this also presents a further issue in regards to Nick’s character. It positions him as a ‘damsel-in-distress’ equivalent, being an object to be saved, his defining characteristic in this instance being his disability. This is exacerbated by a script that essentially sidelines the brothers’ relationship beyond the film’s opening – but ultimately that isn’t what the Good Time is about.
This is Connie’s film. He is, at best, a mediocre criminal, but much worse a person. Nearly every person he comes across he exploits in some way, disregarding the interests of anyone other than himself. Even his brother, who he clearly loves, finds himself used to support Connie’s foolhardy schemes. Yet despite his unscrupulous nature, the Safdies imbue him with a certain charm. He is able to manipulate people through a palpable charisma, one emphasised by Pattinson’s Hollywood looks against the more prosaic appearances of those he interacts with. But Pattinson here is far more than a pretty face, with perhaps his very finest performance; taking into account the likes of Cosmopolis, this is no small achievement. As the film progresses he presents a character slowly crumbling, his edifice of confidence loosening to reveal an angry and aimless man beneath. While street-smart to an extent, his idiocy in a more general sense becomes ever more keenly felt. In one of the film’s final scenes said edifice collapses entirely, and Connie reveals himself in a self-reflexive attack on a fellow criminal: ‘you serve no function whatsoever.’ Critic Jake Cole puts it best: ‘he has [a] caged, self-immolation quality,’ much like the protagonists of Scorsese’s early films.
Both Cole and A.O. Scott (The New York Times) also recognise the essential thematic basis to the film, overlooked by many other critics, of white privilege. In Connie’s rampant exploitation of those around him, it is ethnic minorities who bear his brunt most obviously. The film’s most astute delivery of its thesis is also its best moment. The heist scene towards its beginning is notable for the masks the protagonists wear – not clowns or former presidents, but a sort of rubberized blackface. The distinctly uncanny valley look of these masks is off-putting enough as it is, but more so is the idea that the best disguise available to two white criminals is simply to be black. Connie later abuses the kindness of a Caribbean immigrant, both stealing her car and misleading her daughter; and finally beats and drugs a Somalian security guard. In every space he occupies, he takes command – using his knowledge of police injustice to further enable his adverse behaviour.
Beyond this grounded thematic base, Good Time is somewhat less stark visually. Aided by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the New York of this film is saturated and luminous, available light channelled and exaggerated. Greens and reds splay across character’s faces, televisions brighten dark rooms, storefronts glow in the street. The camera itself typically functions in close-up, forcing a sense of claustrophobia and tension throughout. Some (such as Indiewire’s David Ehrlich) have compared the film to Enter the Void visually, but Good Time is rather more reticent with its psychedelic potential. There is a scene in which Connie searches a ‘haunted house’ ride for a bottle of liquid acid, but the Safdies don’t push this scene down the rabbit-hole. Their doing so would have been welcome. Supporting the ever-building tension is the soundtrack, by the ever-brilliant Oneohtrix Point Never. His progressive electronic music, reminiscent of the classic work of Tangerine Dream, ensures that no scene drops the pace and that the building pressure doesn’t let up.
It has to make up for a plot that sometimes isn’t quite as tight as a film like this demands. After being imprisoned for a little while Nick is, predictably, beaten up and transferred to a hospital. Connie attempts to break him out, but in his inexorable cocktail of bad luck and stupidity fails this task, so he resorts to a barely-related plot to sell a bottle of discarded LSD. While this section of the film is somewhat engaging in its own right, it lacks the immediacy or necessity that was apparent earlier. His brother is not in direct threat so long as he remains in hospital, so Connie’s urgency to sell his newly acquired gear is questionable at best. Yet despite this, and some other shortcomings, Good Time ultimately delivers on its title’s promise (to the audience, at least). Eminently stylish without losing its theoretic basis, it’s a film that anticipates greatness in the Safdie brothers, even if that lies a little out of reach for the time being. Watch this space.
Good Time is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below.