Good Time **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ben Safdie & Joshua Safdie.
Written by: Ronald Bronstein & Joshua Safdie.
Starring: Robert Pattinson (Connie Nikas), Buddy Duress (Ray), Benny Safdie (Nick Nikas), Taliah Lennice Webster (Crystal), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Corey Ellman), Barkhad Abdi (Dash the Park Security Guard), Necro (Caliph), Peter Verby (Peter the Psychiatrist), Saida Mansoor (Agapia Nikas), Gladys Mathon (Annie).
You cannot help but think of the New York films of the 1970s – from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (or After Hours, although that’s the 1980s) to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and beyond – when you watch Good Time. The film captures that same nervous energy, that sense of constant action, and impending doom, from beginning to end. Good Time is a film of constant, propulsive energy – and represents a step forward for director brother Ben and Joshua Safdie – who are among the most exciting directors of Indie films in America right now. They capture that constant hum of a city like New York – in no small part because of the great performance at its core by Robert Pattinson – whose career since the Twilight films ended hasn’t been spotless, but shows remarkable ambition, and good taste in directors. Here, he channels an actor like Pacino at the height of his 1970s power – and delivers one of the great performances of the year.
The film opens not on Pattinson’s Connie – but on his brother, Nick (co-director Benny Safdie) who is being interviewed by a psychiatrist about his recent difficulties. It’s clear that Nick suffers from some sort of mental disorder – although the film never specifies what. After this interview, which goes on longer than you would think it would, Connie busts in and takes Nick out of the interview – walking down the hall, he points at the other patients in the area and asks Nick, almost cruelly if he thinks he’s like them. Smash cut to the pair of brother committing a bank robbery – that seems to go off without a hitch – until during the getaway, a dye pack explodes. In the foot chase after, Connie gets away – but Nick gets arrested. Nick doesn’t do well at Rikers Island – and finds himself in the hospital. The majority of the movie takes place over one long night, in which Connie tries to find a way to get his brother out of jail/the hospital – first by trying to come up with bail, and then more adventuresome means.
At his core, Connie is a gifted conman – he thinks well on his feet, and through the night, as one thing after another goes wrong, Connie is able to up with one plan after another to keep himself ahead of the noose that is tightening around his neck. He may not always be great and seeing ahead four or five moves – but in the moment, he’s able to figure out the one move he needs to make to stay ahead. The camera seems to tighten on him throughout the movie – moving in closer and closer to him, trapping him – until the film climax, which pulls back in a dazzling helicopter (not drone) shot to see Connie as the rat in a maze of his own design he cannot get out of.
I’ve heard Good Time described as a crime film about white privilege, and while I’m not sure I’d say the movie is “about” that, it certainly acknowledges the advantage Connie has because he is white – and how he exploits it. From the bank robbery itself – where both he and Nick don masks that make them look like black men, to the elderly woman into whose apartment he cons his way into, to her teenage granddaughter he seduces, to the security guard at a seedy “amusement park” (Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi – it is black people who are most hurt by Connie’s actions, and who he exploits.
There is a point – while at the woman’s apartment – where I almost felt like the movie had painted itself into a narrative corner it couldn’t escape – and that is when Ray (Buddy Durress) – shows up, with a story so convoluted, and brilliantly told, it almost acts as its own short film within the film. Ray isn’t any better than Connie – in some ways he’s worse, and not as charming to boot, but he gives the movie a shot in the arm, and sends it hurtling towards its brilliant climax.
Good Time is the kind of gritty, small scale crime drama you do not see made much anymore. The Safdies made the film for little money, grabbing shots where they could, and getting great performances by pros and near amateurs alike. Pattinson has never been better. You like him despite yourself, and then gradually realize how monstrous he is (this is something the Safdies have specialized in during their careers). He has turned himself into an ambitious actor with an impressive list of directors he’s work with – David Michod (The Rover), David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis, Map to the Stars), James Gray (The Lost City of Z), Werner Herzog (Queen of the Desert) – and upcoming projects by Claire Denis, the Zellner brothers, Olivier Assayas, Harmony Korine and Joanna Hogg. I was hard on Pattinson during the Twilight films – and with good reason, unlike co-star Kristen Stewart, he was painfully awkward in those films – but while not all of his performances have been great since then, he has shown more range, skill and ambition than I would have thought he would. Here, he is a brilliant bundle of nervous energy – it is a great performance at the heart of a great film.