“Don’t be confused. It’ll only make things worse for me.” There are an estimated 8 million people living in New York City. The Safdie Brothers’ vicious, rollicking, desperate Good Time is a dread-inducing, stomach-churning kind of modern classic, which chains itself to one person. Following a bank robbery gone wrong, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) attempts that night to get his brother out of jail, the film is as claustrophobic as it is sprawling, as crushing as it is awe-inspiring, as reactionary as it is necessarily deconstructionist, as grounded as it is otherworldly.
The score pulsates throughout the entire film, unlike Hans Zimmer’s score in Dunkirk, which feels awkwardly coated atop the film, all bombast and authoritarian, Oneohtrix Point Never’s elegant work for the film seems grown in tandem, like the staking for a tomato plant. The aesthetics of Good Time waiver on the precipice of science fiction, with the score reminiscent of Blade Runner’s indulgent diegesis, a wheelchair lift synthesized and distorted, and the clammy neon, a welcome revision after the oversaturated, objectifying hues of Gaspar Noe and Nicholas Winding Refn, forming the sense that Connie’s world is isolated akin to a bully’s, abusive and solitary, a con life.
The film is tense and brisk and brusque, the sort that’s nearly inevitable with such close, jarring cuts. But the fast editing doesn’t account for the perverted genius of its imagery, such as a bright red paint tag car crash, or the double-sided Adventureland opus.
Pattinson has long been one of our great underrated performers, but here he exhibits a life, an energy beyond his strange magnetism. The human calculation as a performance that has been such a gift, that empathetic, maniacal precision, is put into overdrive, an overheated iPhone glitching out. His work ranks only against Jean-Pierre Leaud’s work in The Death of Louis XIV among the year’s best male performances. The surrounding actors, an orbit of unfortunate side characters, are universally great. Buddy Duress damn near steals the show in a centerpiece flashback, a blurry 7/11 slushie of a heist folly. Jennifer Jason Leigh continues to have the most interesting, diverse body of work for any American actress working today.
Much of the criticism propped against the film has to do with Ben Safdie’s performance as Nick, Connie’s mentally disabled brother, but I wager that this is misguided. Though his severe debilitation may register as a bit trashy (a common tendency throughout the film that I find more piercing than lazy), his treatment is questionable. Among other things, Good Time is the anti-Of Mice and Men, suggesting Nick a victim of toxic love; on a walk through a mental ward, Connie. There are intimations of domestic violence from both Nick and Connie’s grandmother and Connie, but rather than featuring as explicit reference points, they inform the silence of Connie’s tight grip on Nick’s shoulders in an alleyway or Nick’s momentary pauses in the final scene. The treatment of Ben Sadie’s character feels nothing if not totally respectful; He gets aggressive but not ragingly so when he gets sad, or cannot comprehend something, and the film never asks for pity or to excuse his obliviousness. The Safdies offer a realistic depiction of mental disabilities, brimming with humanity and support, never once relegated to a plot device by anyone except his own brother.
The film’s cultural criticism extends further. The tabs of LSD on Pepe cartoons, the stunning use of the N-word towards the end of the film, the black masks, the money laundering service, the comforting atmosphere of Leigh’s mother’s apartment, all signify a dimension of honesty and basically daring bravura machismo in its underpinnings. Labeled somewhat correctly as trolling, akin to von Trier’s formal gibberish in Nymphomaniac, the Safdies refuse to ignore socio-political backdrops, pushing the queasy implications of Connie’s indiscriminate actions brilliant through the dimensions of Leigh’s fallen class, or Rose Gregario’s Lauren’s mere happenstance, shifting from a stranger’s kindness to a girl uselessly jailed because of her race. The Safdies nudge and encourage a sort of savage pleasure in Connie’s increasingly desperate antics, even as the film grows increasingly sickeningly, vague kindness exploited by context. Connie’s vicious beating of Barkhad Abdi’s security guard is tinged with subconscious bias and a horrific layer of nervous sweat, but more disturbing is the police’s. The film is peppered with narrow escapes and plot devices, but they are deliberate; Connie gets by because of his manipulation and his identity, easily slipping through. The Safdies view class as a major limitation, but one further complicated and far surpassed by those of racial conflict.
Far from a metaphysical meditation on how society guides morality, Good Time physically embodies New York on a geographic and individual so profoundly, and fluidly. The camera traces the city from the ground level, only shifting during several transport interludes, where zooms to monitor a car, revealing an empty street, then a block occupied by so many damn people. That a film can have so tight a narrative but encompass in such a distinctly contemporary fashion one of the most iconic cities in the world is one of the central magic paradoxes of this micro-tragedy epic.
Like the recent Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s sexy French terrorist masterpiece, which opened the same week beside Good Time in New York and Los Angeles, Good Time’s power is built on a mixture of impeccable craft, a deep sense of place and contradictory philosophical impulses.
Connie is a bad person, and yet we allow his point of view because the film allows our engagement and horror to reflect a certain helplessness. Connie has never been taken to task, never gone to prison, and the audience garners futile hopes to escape free as well. The film is gross and ugly, to be sure, but there is a beauty to its embrace of every moment of stillness, and its realization of how destabilizing capitalism can be when even one person abuses their position of power. That Nick finds help from social workers feels as uplifting as it is a cynical comfort, that the system has worked out for a single person, with so many other still reeling from its faults. Good Time moves too fast to fully register all these questions on initial impact, but they latch hooks into the brain for days afterward.
Good Time is a great crime film because of how gleefully its submerges itself in the problems of the genre and the generosity with which it treats its own trolling. Through Connie, the film offers an anthropological X-Ray of New York antithetical to the tenants of any film in its class. Early Michael Mann would never let his affection sour as it does here. Connie’s fatalistic course of action is inevitably greeted with punishment, but the arrest is neither moralizing nor comforting. His privilege is enabling, above all else, the collateral damage he inflicts on the lives of those with whom he comes in contact is infinitely more damning than Pattinson’s last scene. Surely, that same scene shifts its focus, finding a frame with the closest thing to a wiser perspective, to the tragic events outside the cop car. This is not the story of Connie, but a Romance Apocalypse tour of New York City. It’s just pretty darn easy for Connie to run his shit here. Healing comes from the system healing the people, and the people healing the system. Pulling one over on the audience is not a victimless crime, but that’s sort of what you sign up for. Walk across the room if you ever feel powerless. End credits. Pet the crocodiles.