With their most recent two features, Daddy Longlegs and Heaven Knows What, the brotherly directing team of Ben and Joshua Safdie have engaged in something they’ve referred to as hybrid filmmaking—mixing veteran actor with first-timers, and sometimes even blurring the line between fiction and documentary in depicting the lives of people who live on the periphery of the world, those who rarely have films made about them. In Good Time, the Safdies have paired with a known-quantity actor for the first time (in this case, Robert Pattinson) and the results are exhilarating as they take us on an terrifying overnight journey with lowlife Connie Nikas in a quest to free his brother from police custody.
From a script be Joshua Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, Good Time begins tells the story of brothers Connie and Nick (played by Ben Safdie), the former has just been let out of jail while the other is apparently deaf and easy confused especially when he’s not with his caretaker brother. The film opens with a social worker of some kind interviewing Nick about his life. The questions are simple and non-threatening, but Nick (shot in an unnervingly tight close up) is clearly searching for a way out of the situation, despite the fact that he can leave anytime. Connie bursts in on the session and pulls Nick out, but almost immediately the two start plotting a bank robbery so they can get enough money to get out of New York City and go somewhere less stressful. It’s an empty fantasy and their scheme is half baked at best. Connie is a career criminal, but not a bad guy. He genuinely cares about his brother, but it’s also clear he will use and abuse every other relationship in his life to get what he needs at any given moment.
Pattinson delivers a sunken-eyed, shell-shocked performance, with bursts of violence and hints of a true con-artist in the making. He sweet talks his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to give him money for his brother’s parole after he’s caught for the bank job, but when her credit card is declined at the bail bonds place, he vanishes. He also turns on the charm to get what he needs from 16-year-old Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), whose house he has managed to talk his way into to hide his injured and bandaged brother, who he’s just broken out of custody from a local hospital. But the sequence that gave me chills in when he breaks into an amusement park to find some hidden cash and gets busted by the black security guard (Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi). He manages to knock out the guard and change clothes with him just as the police arrive. They see a white security officer and a subdued black suspect, and they barely ask a question about what happened, as Connie uses racial profiling to his advantage.
Good Time is filled with keenly observed details like that in every scene. Moving from heist movie to jailbreak thriller to chase film, the Safdies downplay the typical Hollywood way of presenting these genres for a lower-key approach that still finds quieter ways of building tension, giving us the thrill of pursuit, and even delivering a few well-earned laughs. A large component in ratcheting up the anxiety levels is a pulsating, gritty score from experimental composer Oneohtrix Point Never (real name: Daniel Lopatin), who also did the music for Partisan and The Bling Ring. The elements perfectly collide to create a visual and aural blend of muted neon colors, violence, passion, and confusion, with a musical backdrop that reminded me of everything from a fading heartbeat to an asthmatic piped through AutoTune. Good Time is a ride who stops and end are unknown, ever-changing, and surreal beyond words at times. Anchored by a career-best performance by Pattinson, it’s an unforgettable work that will rattle you in all the best ways.
The film opens today at the AMC River East 21 and the Regal Webster Place 11.