Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh
US theatrical: 25 Aug 2017
Watching the psychological crime thriller Good Time is like spending 90 minutes inside of a sleazy panic trip. Sibling directors Benny and Josh Safdie make the discomfort palpable, suffocating the screen with fidgety close-ups and an unrelenting synth soundtrack. It’s a visceral freakout that leaves you with only two appropriate responses; cringing and nervous laughter. This Good Time is too jarring to be more than a one-night stand, but it’s one night you won’t soon forget.
Some decisions are so bad that no one, not even the most innocent of bystanders, can escape the unholy carnage. That lowlife drifter Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) decides to rob a New York City bank in broad daylight is beyond idiotic. That he drags along his mentally handicapped brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie) as a wingman is unconscionable. It’s an unsavory premise that immediately orients you to where the Safdie Brothers stand; everyone in this story is reprehensible, so don’t expect any happy endings, buttercup!
Good Time is cool neon style slathered in rat shit sensibility. Filmed through a digital haze that often resembles security camera footage, the Safdie Brothers dunk you in this drug-fueled cesspool and then hide all the hand sanitizer. Each scene throbs with propulsive energy as Connie prowls the streets of NYC in search of the $10k it will take to spring Nick, who is quickly apprehended and stashed at Rikers Island. Our tour guide through Hell, Connie explores a series of increasingly violent criminal shortcuts while still clinging to his inexplicable sense of moral superiority.
It’s precisely this contradiction, expertly captured by Pattinson’s sweaty desperation, that saves Good Time from being just another exercise in stylistic excess (see: Atomic Blonde). Connie seems to genuinely love his brother (expressing as much on multiple occasions to anyone who will listen), but thinks nothing of endangering his life in pursuit of a quick score. When he callously steals the fruit drink from an old lady’s hospital meal tray, Connie is obliged to offer the semi-conscious woman the first sip. This stagnant puddle of a conscience keeps you curious about Connie’s fate, even if the deal was sealed long ago.
Still, there’s not much subtext or thematic heft to distract from what is, essentially, a purely cinematic experience. If Dunkirk found emotional elevation through our primal survival instincts, Good Time embraces the Dark Side with an almost giddy abandon. This is a film in which our “hero” uses underage sex as a diversionary tactic, so plan on visiting the more squalid precincts of the human spirit.
Every decision made by the Safdie Brothers tightens the claustrophobic grip of impending doom. Actors are framed in super-tight close-ups from every conceivable angle; a story told through darting eyes and sweaty upper lips. When the log is flipped over and the harsh spotlight finds them, there’s simply nowhere for these scurrying characters to hide. It’s a level of intimacy that invites both judgment and affiliation, making for a decidedly squirmy viewing experience.
The score, too, continues the summer movie trend in which action and sound co-mingle in fresh and interesting ways. Rather than plundering the song catalogs of popular artists, however, composer Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) does a remarkable job shadowing the directionless Connie with an almost stream-of-consciousness ambient synth texture. When things get frenzied and a change of tactic is needed, Lopatin interjects with abrasive, cheeky riffs that might feel perfectly at home in an ‘80s crime yarn. Just think of the lushness of a restrained Vangelis mixed with the improvised insanity of Keith Emerson (Emerson’s remarkable score for Stallone’s Nighthawks comes to mind).
For all of the intensity and cringe-worthy moments, Good Time also has a knack for inspired absurdity. An acid junkie’s profanity-laced tirade about his recent journey from jail, to a creepy amusement park, and back to jail again (which includes the high-speed exit from an enraged Uber driver’s luxury car) is the funniest monologue in recent memory. It’s impossible not to laugh when Connie urges his hysterical girlfriend (a disheveled Jennifer Jason Leigh), “Don’t be confused, it’s just gonna make it worse for me!”
Nobody in Good Time is laughing, though. Pattinson attacks this role with an unguarded sincerity that rivals his previous cinematic highpoint, 2014’s The Rover. Connie’s nauseating blend of aggression and rationalization makes him a magnet for scorn, but Pattinson repels our disgust with his compulsive energy. As the mentally impaired brother, Nick, Benny Safdie delivers a restrained performance that makes your heart break. This is not a world that coddles the innocent, and you can feel Nick’s desperate gaze searching for the nearest corner in which to hide.
Much like Aronofsky’s fevered masterpiece, Requiem for a Dream, Good Time is probably not a film you’ll be compelled to revisit. The arresting visuals and confrontational grimness make for some challenging moments. For the adventurous viewer, however, the Safdie Brothers have crafted an irresistible piece of pulp. Good Time is the sleazy friend that knows all the best dives.
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