Not since Austrian auteur Michael Haneke made the resolutely dour and incendiary Funny Games (twice) has there been a film as cheekily mislabelled as Josh and Benny Safdie’s relentless thriller Good Time. It’s thrilling, exciting, and stomach churning, but if someone tells you that they had a fun night at the movies after watching Good Time, you might want to rethink your relationship to this person. A bold, dazzling, non-stop work of gritty, sleazy bravado, Good Time is the rare kind of propulsive action film where everything is made to feel appropriately desperate and harrowing. It’s an imperfect, sometimes problematic adventure, but also one of the best deconstructions of the thriller genre ever made.
Everyday scumbag Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) can’t live without his developmentally disabled brother and partner in crime, Nick (Benny Safdie). Shortly after breaking his brother out of what appeared to be a court ordered psychiatric examination, Connie and Nick set out to rob a New York City bank to the tune of $65,000. Things don’t go according to plan, and Nick gets picked up by the cops and transferred to the notorious Riker’s Island penitentiary. Knowing that Nick won’t last long in a supermax prison, Connie does everything in his power to post his brother’s bail. After a dye pack exploded on their cash, only $16,000 of their haul is usable towards a bail bond, and the judge handling Nick’s hearing has gone missing with some unspecified medical ailment. Connie begins a mad dash through the city in the middle of the night to come up with an additional ten grand and locate the judge that can set Nick free.
For a viewer to truly appreciate what the Safdie brothers are attempting with Good Time any sense of morality or judgment needs to not only be checked at the door to the theatre, but is probably better off left at home. While Connie’s quest to free his hurting and emotionally stunted brother is noble in theory, he’s still a resolutely reprehensible human being who takes advantage of people, flirts with an underage girl, does things without thinking of others, and is willing to hurt and harm any innocent person that gets in the way of his goals. Good Time never wavers from Connie’s narrow minded focus, making an already bracing and claustrophobic set up even more loaded and potent. You never really want to see Connie succeed, but you want his brother to be okay. You always want to see what happens next, cringing and regretting your decision to follow along almost immediately as if the Safdie are daring people to walk out of the theatre.
Immediately after Good Time, if one were to ask me what I thought of the film, I would have said that I didn’t like it in the slightest outside of Pattinson’s performance and the Safdie’s commitment to their tone and aesthetic. It wasn’t until letting the film sit with me for awhile that I realized it was secretly brilliant in its own anarchic and thoughtful way. Thoughtful films don’t have to make a viewer feel good about themselves or reflect on society. Thoughtful films can also make people fill in a lot of tantalizing blanks within the story over time that enrich the viewing experience long after the credits roll. On my walk home from the cinema following my screening of Good Time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the Safdies constructed Connie’s tormented journey through New York, and through such reasoning I was able to see that Good Time is an intelligent work of primal anarchy.
While many might quickly point to Martin Scorsese as an immediate influence on Good Time (and he is indeed thanked prominently in the closing credits), the Safdie’s are pulling from much more disreputable 42nd Street styled grindhouse fare and elevating it to more artistic levels. Looking grainy, occasionally neon splashed, and alternating between almost pitch black and blinding fluorescent lighting, the Safdies have created their second film in a row with expert, underrated cinematographer Sean Price Williams that looks and feels like being trapped inside someone else’s bad hangover. It’s meant as a compliment, as I doubt that Safdies would ever want to create a motion picture that feels at all artificial and forced, and Good Time and their previous effort Heaven Knows What (one of the very best films of 2014 and also about unhealthy expressions of love) are meant to balance visual sleekness with narrative ugliness in ways that should make Nicolas Winding Refn jealous.
Good Time moves like the viewer is trapped in a paint can shaker, only offering a five minute moment of decompression at the film’s end as a small consolation so audiences can reacclimatize to the world outside the theatre. Connie is a determined man on a mission. He tries to get his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to max out her mom’s credit card to get the money. Then he tries kidnapping someone straight out of the hospital. When those plans don’t work, he falls into a scheme to retrieve and quickly unload a Sprite bottle filled with uncut liquid acid that was dropped in an amusement park by a fellow low life that was also running from the cops. There isn’t a moment in any of these threads that the Safdies haven’t cranked to eleven, and the nightmarish, propulsive, and strangely catchy score from Daniel Lopatin (better known as Oneohtrix Point Never) enhances the vibe nicely.
It’s as grand a work of purposefully nasty cinematic overkill as Neveldine and Taylor’s Crank films, albeit with a lot more emotional intelligence and a lot less kidding around. As such, Good Time does sometimes feel like it’s a bit too much for its own good. I know that the purpose of such relentlessness is to make the viewer as exhausted, paranoid, and skittish as Connie feels, but the Safdies are still asking for a lot more than most casual viewers probably want to give to a film with such a loathsome main character. I’m also not entirely sold that their conscious or unconscious decision to cast black actors as many of the physical or emotional victims in Connie’s rampage has been well thought through. I can tell that a social point is trying to be made by such casting and framing, but it’s a tenuous one at best that’s more problematic than novel. It’s also a story that hard to imagine unfolding over a single night without even more consequences and wrinkles.
Critics often talk about how thrillers tend to have their energy levels taper off at a certain point, and Good Time might be one of the few examples where the film is a pure and uncut release of adrenaline. It could stand a few more quiet moments and breathers, but that doesn’t mean that the Safdies have conducted a masterful symphony of madness with their latest. They also have a perfect collaborator in Pattinson, who seems game for anything they want to throw at him. In his best performance to date (besting the one he turned in earlier this year in The Lost City of Z), Pattinson never tries to earn Nicky more sympathy than he deserves while constantly keeping in step with the script’s fast paced rhythms. It’s as much of a triumph for Pattinson as it is the Safdies, and a future collaboration between them would be welcomed.
Good Time isn’t for everyone. It takes nerves of steel just to get through it, and even then many might be turned off by what they just saw. I doubt that the Safdies care if people don’t like the film. It feels uncompromised, uninhibited, and yet somehow also contained and artful. It falls off the razor’s edge of good taste within minutes and proceeds to slide down the remainder of the blade for the rest of its running time. You have been warned, but you’ve also never seen anything like this.
Good Time opens exclusively in Toronto at Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinemas on Friday, August 18, 2017. It expands to other Canadian cites on Friday, August 25.
Check out the trailer for Good Time: