Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time is a breath of fresh air in an indie landscape beset by a certain suburban dullness and by a desire to conform to what is contemptuously called the “Sundance style,” a type of semi-autobiographical film that is more often than not self-indulgent, stylistically conservative and oblivious to the world around it. Good Time is a shout-out to the type of frantic, in your face, no holds barred uncompromising independent films the 70s. It grabs you by the throat and never lets go; it is relentless. It’s also a perfect example of classic Aristotelian storytelling.
The movie delivers anything but a good time; the phrase, in fact, refers to the reduction of jail time to good behavior and it only applies to a secondary character that appears halfway through the film. The opening tight close-up of Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) as he undergoes a test for his learning disability at an outpatient facility, lingers over every pore, every imperfection, his face a blank slate, his tone of voice hostile, as confrontational as the image itself. His brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges into the session, “rescuing” his brother as he berates the therapist. The setup screams old school social drama but minutes later the film shifts gears as the two brothers, wearing blackface leather masks, pull off a bank robbery. Things go wrong, as they always do in any self-respecting crime drama, and Nick is caught and imprisoned in Rikers Island where he gets into a truly ugly fight with other prisoners.
And so begins a long journey into the night for Connie as he hustles and cons his way through Queens, trying to raise the $10,000 he needs to pay for his brother’s bond. It’s a journey that takes him through the borough’s, and the city’s, social divide. He leaves behind him a trail of abused and betrayed victims: from his white girlfriend who lives with her elderly mother and has believed all of Connie’s false promises of vacationing in Costa Rica (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Jamaican grandmother and her 16-year-old granddaughter (Gladys Mathon and Taliah Webster, respectively) who offer refuge to him and the ex-con Connie freed from the hospital in the mistaken belief that he was rescuing his brother (Buddy Duress), and the poor African security guard at an amusement park (Barkhad Abdi) who meets an unfortunate and more than unfair fate at the hands of Connie. Connie’s grandmother may be a Greek immigrant, but that doesn’t stop him from victimizing other immigrants, especially those coming from African or Caribbean nations.
Critics have rightfully compared Connie to Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) in his nervy drive and obliviousness to the harm his actions cause on others, and the Good Time‘s frantic night-out structure to that director’s After Hours (1985). But I would argue that, in their single-minded focus on character, keen depiction of urban life, and smart fusion of genres, the Safdie brothers evoke and almost emulate the work of another pair of brothers: Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Even though Good Time, with its thumping score and varied bright and natural light and neon photography, is more stylized than most of the Dardennes’ work, it shares an almost documentary-like a sense of urgency. But while most of the characters in the Dardennes’ filmography are redeemable in spite of their flaws, no such redemption is in the cards for Donnie. The Safdies never ask us to sympathize with Connie. In fact, the camera stays so close to him, that it feels like we are watching an specimen under a microscope, one who lives on pure instinct.
Pattinson is electric as Connie, especially when you realize that his character has been deprived of a backstory, forcing him to build a well-rounded, complex character from some basic building blocks, a character that can be gentle one second and a predator the next. His eyes measure every move, his mind going through every algorithm. His Connie is so protective of his brother, his focus so single-minded, that he wouldn’t feel sorry if the world went to hell in a basket as long as he and his brother make it out alive. As Nick, co-director Ben Safdie is at first glance a gentle, quiet giant, one puzzled and irritated by his therapist’s questions. But, deprived of the security blanket that is his brother, he has no choice but to resort to aggressiveness to fend for himself, even though it may end up with him beaten to a bloody pulp in Rikers. We don’t see Nick again until the film’s final minutes but we don’t need to. Safdie’s performance leaves an indelible impression in our minds, his presence felt in his brother’s every single action.
Daniel Lopatin’s (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) score is the film’s third major star. Its throbbing, insistent pulse propels the action from one scenario to the next. It never loosens its grip, bombarding our eardrums constantly, amping up the anxiety levels. It evokes early Tangerine Dream while creating new soundscapes of its own. 2017 has so far provided some of the best movie music scores of this young century; Lopatin’s is definitely one of the year’s best.