“Don’t be confused, it is just going to make it worse for me.”
This might be the line that best sums up Good Time, a high stress ultra-stylized sprint through the nether regions and institutions of New York City at night. The picture is shot in gloriously frenetic close-ups imbued with a unique pulse. A rhythm that builds its own kind of character-based mood. Kaleidoscopic colours, and film grain rendered via capture on analogue stock, hold up magnificently even when projected digitally. But sit close to the screen at your own risk.
With the exception of the opening and closing scenes, and a brief breather when two characters sit down on the couch and watch a few minutes of COPS on television, things are brilliantly dense in the handling of urgent and fucked up situations. There are layers upon layers (physically echoed in the wardrobe of the lead character) of things happening at any given moment in the frame. And these are happening at speed. Characters talk (and shout) over top of one another, and yet the exquisite sound design and superbly executed camera work never leave the audience behind.
The soul of the picture is the knotty relationship between two brothers. Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas is wholly inhabited by Robert Pattinson; a performance brimming with surprises. Pattinson’s recent run of work has demonstrated many talents that have been set free after the actor was freed from the mopey shackles of the Twilight franchise.
Connie is a gifted and clever criminal, at in an improvisational sense, at the street level. With his bipolar girlfriend (a terrifyingly wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh) or his special needs brother, he finds himself surrounded by people who simply cannot keep up with his penchant for being in the moment. His brother Nick is somewhere on the spectrum, mostly deaf, and clearly requires an empathy and structured environment that Connie in incapable of ever providing.
Nick, played wonderfully by Ben Safdie, one of the two directors, is introduced in extreme close-up (naturally) in the quiet opening minutes of the film. He is in the office of a social worker who is trying to provide said empathy and structure at the request of his grandmother, who has had it with her grandsons petty criminal activities.
Minutes into the assessment he is forcibly dragged from the corner office by Connie to participate in an ill advised bank robbery to finance a trip and possibly a life out of poverty in Queens. At this point Daniel Lopatin’s (Oneohtrix Point Never) propulsive score kicks in and the chaotic energy of the film really never lets up.
Good Time is the ultimate pop-arthouse show-don’t-tell drama cum thrill ride. Fifty years ago, nobody would be able to follow a movie with so much going on at the same time. Our media processing sensibilities have arrived to this moment when the Safdie Brothers are wrestling editing and film-grammar to the ground – building upon moments from their previous picture, Heaven Knows What). They do so for our viewing pleasure without ever leaving our hearts or minds behind.
Using a combination of actors and real cops, prison guards and even gangsters, Good Time ratchets up the stress over (more or less) an all night odyssey of bad choices. In the tradition of After Hours (or Tchoupitoulas or Night On Earth) the bulk of film takes place over a short span of time, where anything can and will happen. Indeed when you put Jennifer Jason Leigh and Pattinson in a scene sparks o’ crazy fly off the screen. There is a scene in a bail bond office that is destined to be studied for years for its sheer chutzpah and craft.
Watching Connie work is truly a sight to see. In a shockingly short span of time, he stashes and launders contaminated cash, negotiates a bail settlement while grifting the cash shortfall, breaks his brother out of a cop infested hospital ward, ingratiates himself in with a family of strangers, dyes his hair, attempts to locate a yet another stash of money in Farmingdale’s Adventureland theme park (look for a too brief role from Somali actor Barkhad Abdi as the nightwatchman), negotiates a drug deal for a half a litre of LSD, goes to White Castle for burgers, seduces a sixteen year old girl (ick), befriends an angry bulldog, and squeeze in that episode of COPS, all this in under an hour of screen time. Describing these events in a space such as this are less spoilers than they are promises, as it is all in the filmmaking execution.
It gets better. There are a surprising number of empathetic character beats leavened through the technical bombast of Good Time. For instance, there is a quietly wordless scene where Connie offers an immobile, possibly suffering, woman a sip of orange juice in the hospital while he is in mid caper. Or the miraculous closing credit sequence which simply brims with sympathy.
The picture has much to say about human kindness and narcissistic manipulation, mental illness in the prison system, systemic racism, and the petty criminal gang subcultures of New York. It never once preaches on these subjects, it only practices putting Connie’s weird energy into the cadence of the storytelling. There is no confusion here, as stressful as the film might get, I would that more movies could land with the kind of brio seen here.