Sometimes, you see a trailer for a film and just feel down in your core that you need to see this movie, that this movie is going to have a big impact on you. I remember having that feeling watching the trailers for Cloverfield and District 9 for the first time. I had the same feeling when I saw the trailer for Good Time. There was just something about Iggy Pop monologuing about fate over a somber piano as these tense, hyper-real images flashed by that just struck me deeply. I watched the previous film from the directing brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, Heaven Knows What, to get a sense of what these guys do. Heaven Knows What is a haunting, devastating, grimy work. I needed a shower, a hug and a tetanus shot after watching it. I needed somewhat of the same after watching the magnificent Good Time.
Good Time follows Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), a bank robber whose latest heist goes south when his developmentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie) gets arrested, leading Connie on a 24 hour odyssey through the underbelly of New York to try to get enough cash to bail out his brother.
Pattinson’s just on another level here. This shouldn’t be the surprise it is to many, just a few weeks ago I wrote a whole column about how great and exciting of an actor he’s become, but it’s not a stretch to say that he may have delivered his finest work yet as Connie Nikas. The Safdies really challenge the audience with a main character like Connie, as he is unrepentant in how he continually uses and manipulates people. You’re repulsed by him, yet sympathetic because you tell yourself he is doing this all for his brother, but most of all you’re just captivated and impressed how he maneuvers through all these obstacles, often at the expense of others. There are moments that cause you to question his motives, is he really doing this for his brother, or does a part of him just love attaching himself to others and then throwing them under the bus? The way Pattinson plays it, you’re never quite sure, and it’s just captivating. There are moments where he it almost looks like he shows remorse, one instance when someone who has helped him greatly is getting arrested because of him, but he watches it happen, not willing to put himself in danger. Pattinson completely loses himself in this character, you don’t even feel like you’re watching Pattinson, you’re just watching Connie Nikas. Pattinson portrays him as if there’s something almost reptilian driving him. Pattinson’s eyes are constantly bugged out, searching each person he interacts with for their weaknesses, their kindness, and most of all how he can exploit and manipulate them to his gain. If I walked into this film somehow unaware of Pattinson and the fact that he’s British, I’d assume he was born and raised in Queens. His accent is so good, it doesn’t even feel like it’s an accent, like he’s performing it – it just feels like Connie Nikas. We’re going to remember Pattinson for this role.
Benny Safdie can also act too! He actually does a terrific job as the developmentally challenged Nick. Some of the worst performances I’ve ever seen have been from people playing disabled characters, they always do the loudest version possible, substituting exclamation points for human understanding, and somehow the Academy thinks that’s good. Most of the time, you watch these performances, and at the very best you’re only wondering in the back of your mind if this might be offensive and belittling. That’s not the case with Safdie here. He doesn’t exaggerate Nick, he plays him very respectfully and doesn’t just go for the most overplayed version of Nick. He’s completely believable and human.
Buddy Duress, who did a terrific job in Heaven Knows What, reteams with the Safdies for another excellent role in Ray. To describe his role would spoil a great reveal. Duress reminds me of a young Dustin Hoffman in how manic he is. At one point, the film just goes off on a tangent solely focused on him, but you’re not complaining, you’re so enthralled to hear the crazy, ludicrous tale of how this character ended up in this film. Talents like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Barkhad Abdi are welcome additions, and Taliah Webster is a great young discovery. It was also nice to see Souleymane Sy Savane (in casting that had to be aware of his terrific work in Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo), if only for a brief scene.
The score by Oneohtrix Point Never is a real gem. Driven by electronic synths, it’s all at once unsettling yet soothing, tense yet transcendent. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams does something really interesting with the lighting here. Typically, when we mention shooting with natural lighting we think of the outdoors and the sunlight/moonlight. Williams and the Safdies invert that definition, lighting the film naturally but largely through electronic lights in the settings. One scene is lit solely by a static-filled television, neon lights creating a nightmarish, wondrous mood. The final shot of Connie is absolute majesty. I can’t go into detail about it without ruining key plot points, but once you’ve seen Good Time come find me and we’ll talk about it. The Safdies employ a verite, docu-drama feel with their handheld camerawork in their films, and it never feels cheap. It feels essential to the film, to the gritty and grimy aesthetic of their New York City and these characters. There’s an immediacy to the scenes, like you’re witnessing these characters as real people. To enhance the authenticity of it, the Safdies frequently employ non-actors to fill the spaces around their actors to really ground the scenery. Also, just a quick shoutout to the Cellino & Barnes ad to really solidify the authenticity of the NYC setting.
One of the interesting things about this film is how there’s an undercurrent that manages to comment on race relations in America. At one point, Connie beats up and knocks out a black security guard, and then when cops arrive, he switches outfits with the security guard while he’s unconscious and the cops arrest the security guard. There’s a harsh truth in this scene, and Connie knows it and exploits it – the cops are more likely to believe that a white man is the victim than a black man. It’s a damning sequence that not only shows the lengths Connie is willing to go to, but also displays where our country is at by how easy it was for Connie to make the cops think he’s in the right and this black man – who again, is an actual security guard – is a vagrant criminal. He’s just one of the casualties left in Connie’s wake, just one instance of this almost primal ability he has to manipulate anyone he comes into contact with. I don’t want to get too hyperbolic here, but it’s just not so often we get a film like Good Time, the word “singular” comes to mind. I’m not going to stop thinking about this film for weeks, Good Time is a remarkable work of tension, authenticity and character. You’re just not going to see anything else like it this year.