Good Time, the new low-budget feature from sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie, belongs to the age of pre-Giuliani New York City, when Martin Scorsese was painting dysfunctional character dramas on a canvas of gritty city streets. In the film, Benny Safdie plays the intellectually-disabled Nick Nickas, while Robert Pattinson, playing aggressively against type, stars as his overprotective brother Connie, creating a sort of After Hours meets Of Mice and Men dynamic.
The story, which takes place during an intense 24-hour period, begins with Nick in the middle of a therapy session from which he’s forcibly removed by Connie, who speaks of the promise of a better life in rural Virginia, where the two of them can lead their lives in peace and quiet. To properly begin this new life, Connie surmises, the two must rob a bank, thus setting off a series of chaotic events that unfold on the non-gentrified margins of the city’s most neglected and un-hip enclaves. This isn’t a New York we’ve seen onscreen in a long time, and in the capable hands of the Safdie brothers, it’s a sight to behold.
If the Safdies’ previous feature, the intense drama Heaven Knows What, channeled Panic in Needle Park in its depiction of heroin-addicted street life, Good Time borrows from the films of Sidney Lumet and Abel Ferrara in its pulpy, scuzzy criminal indulgences. The genre-savvy film, essentially a kinetic chase thriller with elements of neo-noir and horror, has style and energy to spare.
Pattinson is virtually unrecognizable in the role. With his messy bleach-blonde hair and beady eyes darting to-and-fro, he looks more like a rabid chihuahua than a Hollywood heartthrob. Indeed, a sort of canine influence seems essential to the character of Connie, who oddly claims to have been a dog in a past life and behaves with the same impulsiveness as a hyperactive puppy. Such impetuous decision-making doesn’t exactly serve him well after Nick is arrested during the botched robbery. What begins as an attempt to bail him out of jail eventually morphs into the heedless pursuit of something as abstract and strangely alluring as the Safdies’ own hypnotic and increasingly assured style.
In Connie’s defense, it’s not as if he’s in a familiar situation. He must raise the money to bail his brother out while also making sure that he doesn’t go to jail himself, and his plan unfolds like a pitch-black comedy of errors, with each boneheaded decision leading to another deliriously complicated scenario. The Safdie brothers give Connie a disproportionate sense of confidence. He’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but he does display a kind of criminal shrewdness in his minute-to-minute planning. His ideas are rarely feasible, which is the source of the film’s twisted sense of humor, and the perverse laughs only increase when things manage to work out in the way neither he nor anyone in the audience could have possibly envisioned. In this vein, the arrival of a character played by actor Buddy Duress must be seen to be believed. That said, Connie’s desperate scheming is rarely amusing, especially when he brings disaster into the lives of everyone he touches, including an innocent young girl, an unsuspecting security guard and his overly trusting girlfriend, played by the painfully underused Jennifer Jason Leigh. And don’t forget Nick, who’s now caught up in an unfair system—the American penal system—when he had the opportunity to enter one that could have potentially helped him—the mental health system.
But thanks to Pattinson’s mesmerizing performance, Connie’s seething desperation remains wholly sympathetic. The filmmakers glue their handheld camera tight on his desperate face, which is often awash in the city’s hazy neon lights as he frantically searches for a way out of whichever jam he’s placed himself. Pattinson approaches the character as a sort of anti-anti-hero. Both the actor and the film know that to humanize someone doesn’t necessarily mean to make them likable; together, they prove that one doesn’t have to enjoy a person in order to relate to them. It’s a feeling that turns up whenever Pattinson subverts his movie star charms or the Safdies turn beautiful cityscapes into tangled webs.
Along the way, the Safdies’ use of intersectionality and non-actors illustrate the labyrinthine state where many marginalized people find themselves. And it’s telling that these same marginalized people are those who are most willing to help other marginalized people like Connie, even knowing such are precisely the sort most likely to take advantage of their generosity. The filmmakers’ penchant for shooting from above suggests Connie and people like him are trapped in a sort of maze, and Pattinson’s frantic performance—Connie’s puffed-up sense of injustice, his cruelty and his wounded sense of self-worth—tells us he’s desperate to escape.
Eventually, we come to understand the character’s contempt is part of his broader view of the world, and that he only feels up when dealing with someone to whom he can look down. This obviously paints his relationship with Nick in a negative light, but then again, we never fully doubt that Connie loves his brother, even if it is a kind of toxic love. Good Time suggests that unfair class systems and limited opportunities place people in situations where this kind of toxic love is seemingly the only love of which they’re capable. Perhaps that’s why the film begins and ends with Nick, who’s been unknowingly and unwittingly dragged down by someone who’d rather risk his love than risk being alone. The filmmakers’ ability to work such profound emotional and psychological nuance into a singularly entertaining and genre-facing effort amounts to a cathartic and welcomingly problematic experience. If the Safdies are gonna show you a good time, they’re gonna do it their way.