Movie Review: “Good Time”

On August 11, 2017, a pair of moviemakers known as the Safdie Brothers posted an essay on A24’s website about the release of their film Good Time. Despite saying many insightful things about their love for cinema (particularly how films made an impact on them when they were younger), what really stuck with me the most is when they referred to Time as “our first Movie-Movie”, despite them already making 5 full-length movies at the time (including the 2013 sports documentary Lenny Cooke, which followed the former high school basketball player of the same name).

Despite not having seen any of their work besides that particular film and the later Uncut Gems, I can confidently say they’re right: Good Time undoubtedly feels like the first fully formed vision from two of the most potential-filled directors in A24’s repertoire, the first major step towards a long and successful career for the both of them. Separate it from all of that, however, and you still have an unpredictable, gleefully anti-Hollywood, and appropriately ultra-stressful ride sure to stick with you long after it’s over.

And it would never have been even made if, in the Safides’ own words, “had [Robert Pattinson] not written us a romantic/psychotic email about how he felt deeply connected to us just by having seen a still on Indiewire.” Good choice on his part, because his performance here easily ranks among—and, if it weren’t for his central turn in The Lighthouse, probably would be—the very best in his entire career.

Completely expunging all traces of his Twilight years or British nationality from his system, he fully embodies Connie Nikas, a skeevy low-life criminal who busts his mentally disabled brother, Nick (excellently played by one of the directors, Benny Safdie), out of a therapy session because he loves him so much, and isn’t able to accept that he’s as developmentally challenged as he is. And also so they can rob a bank together.

I hesitate to reveal much more from there, but suffice it to say that things wind going up very, very wrong, and Connie must do whatever he can to get his brother, who hardly even knows what’s going around around him, out of Rikers Island before he gets seriously injured—or even killed—by the other prisoners there. As too much of the stolen money is ruined from an exploding dye pack, he’s left with no choice but to somehow get $10,000 to bail his brother out over the course of one single night, frantically evading the law all the while.

The morality of this setup is challenging*. You find yourself rooting for Connie because you also want nothing bad to happen to Nick, but at the same time, you almost kind of don’t, just because of how cunning, manipulative, and even downright repellent he can be at times. He’s not afraid to use others for his own personal means (even Nick), not afraid to psychically attack those who try getting in his way, and not afraid to do things that would make most people’s jaws fall straight to the floor. In one particularly shocking scene, he starts kissing a 16-year old girl to distract her from a TV news program about the robbery, and even appears to be attempting more than that until something distracts him.

Thankfully, the Safdies know how to perfectly navigate such a dirty human being, making him a compelling forefront to this twisted story without sugarcoating one bit of his dark nature—a trend they would smartly continue for the obsessive gambler at the heart of Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner. The documentary-esque authenticity they bring to all of these characters, not to mention the surrounding setting of NYC’s Queens (none of the film’s locations were locked down during shooting, and Pattinson had to stay in-character even while off-camera to avoid being recognized), gives Good Time the realist feel it needs to succeed as a vivid, fully grounded addition to the crime thriller genre. And it succeeds at that with flying colors.

At a certain point in the film (I dare not say how, when, or why), an ex-con named Ray comes into the story, and his frantic, battered demeanor unbelievably steals the entire show. Even more unbelievably than that, the person he’s played by (Buddy Duress) isn’t an actor in real life. He was an ex-con too, and his character’s entire flashback sequence was adapted from his real-life prison journals and such. That’s how committed the Safdies are to making you feel like you’re actually in Queens with these guys, like you’re watching actual low-life criminals doing actual low-life criminal things.

Despite the film’s gritty nature, the look of it is surprisingly beautiful (a first for the Safdies), with neon colors drenching even the most ordinary of after-dark settings. Rather than clashing with the brutal story, such stylish visuals effortlessly blend with it to create an entrancing, almost surreal late-night atmosphere. Mixed with the Safdies’ love for extreme close-ups, super-wide shots, and handheld filming techniques, the resulting experience is—and I know how much of a cliché this is, but I don’t care—very hard to look away from.

Then there’s the score by electronic musician Daniel Lopatin (his first for any movie—he would later return to work with the Safdies on Uncut Gems)—or, as most people know him, Oneohtrix Point Never. It may be slightly cheesy at times (particularly on tracks like “Entry to White Castle”), but its mild flaws are more than made up for by how effectively it mixes grimy ‘80s-styled beats and lightning-speed adrenaline shots. Looking back on his earlier work, I can’t think of anybody else who could have done this better, or deserves to create far more film music in the future.

Good Time’s budget is only $2 million, but, with a couple small exceptions (a few of the punches looking slightly fake, a dog attacking somebody by only biting their arm), the restrictions you might expect from that are very well-masked by everything the film does so excellently. If anything, the lack of over-the-top action or explosions only serves to heighten the raw realism at the center of this story, and the life-or-death stakes these characters are really faced with.

Perhaps there’s one decision on Connie’s part that I’m not really sure about**, and perhaps the part where he’s stuck in somebody’s house does slow the otherwise-rapid pace down a bit too much, but other than that, this film was truly a very Good Time (sorry, I couldn’t help it) for me. As with Uncut Gems, though, audiences with heart problems, or any other aversions to anxiety-inducing cinema, are advised to stay away. Far, far away.

9/10

*[HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD] And the thing is, an ending that has Connie successfully busting Nick out of jail would just lead to him getting this handicapped person into more criminal trouble, so that ultimately wouldn’t be very satisfying at all. On the other hand, however, a “happy” ending that has Connie suddenly changing into a nice person wouldn’t just be incredibly forced, but also completely destroy the unflinchingly ballsy nature of everything before it. As such, despite the ending the Safdies actually going with being pretty bleak, it’s the best possible ending that this kind of story could have (and things actually don’t wind up going too badly for Nick afterwards, so it’s not completely hopeless either).

**[MORE SPOILERS AHEAD] That particular decision being Connie deciding to leave Adventureland with Ray, even though he successfully managed to convince the cops that he’s a security guard there. Yeah, I know he found the Sprite bottle containing the highly valuable acid, but I’m still not certain that someone as desperate as Connie wouldn’t try searching for that bag of money a little more before departing. [END SPOILERS]

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