Good Time is a gritty New York crime story reminiscent of The Warriors, Taxi Driver, and Dog Day Afternoon. The plot focuses on two hapless brothers and a bank robbery gone awry, a botched heist that results in police chases, stolen cars, and a hilarious case of mistaken identity. Co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie have crafted a nerve-wracking crime adventure loaded with thrills, sleazy characters, and a distinctly New York flavour.
Connie (Robert Pattinson) is a petty crook with big-time ambitions. A ne’er-do-well, he is a bottom-feeding leech that is always one scheme away from sitting on easy street – as long as you lend him a hundred bucks first. Connie eventually recruits his developmentally-challenged brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), to aid him in a bank robbery; the heist doesn’t go as planned, chaos ensues, and the police capture Nick (who’s not equipped for survival behind bars). Understanding jail poses a threat to his brother’s life, Connie sets out to make some quick cash, rescue Nick, and evade the cops.
Good Time captures an intangible New York vibe that is hard to put into words. This version is gritty, lived-in, and bustling with vitality. It’s also capable of taking a dark turn at any moment. The Safdies make New York come alive without resorting to tired clichés or the city’s famous iconography; it’s about the experience just as much as the look, and Good Time‘s look is inspired by the type of 80s crime movies your uncle probably still has on VHS tapes in his closet. The Safdies don’t settle for 80s pastiche, instead spicing things up with a stylized lo-fi edginess. There’s a graininess to the footage that looks like watching an old episode of Cops by way of blown up iPhone footage.
Regardless of how cinematographer Sean Price Williams frames each shot, you can feel the world outside the camera looming just beyond the screen’s edges. It’s the difference between playing a side-scrolling action game like Double Dragon or dropping into Grand Theft Auto‘s open world sandbox. No matter what’s happening onscreen, there’s a sense that life exists just beyond camera’s gaze, and the Safdies have a knack for mining tension from the threats lurking out of frame: cop cars patrol the streets like sharks sniffing out blood in the water, and thugs dwell outside rundown bodegas; Connie never feels like he is safe, and neither does the viewer.
Good Time‘s retro-tinged score plays a large part in keeping your heart jackhammering throughout the entire film. The movie’s music sounds as if John Carpenter scored a Nintendo Game in 1987. Laser-like synths and fuzzy basslines blast straight through to your soul, leaving the hair on the back of your neck standing up. It’s rare that a film comes along and wages such an effective all-out assault on your senses, and by the end you’ll feel like you’ve been put through the ringer. However, if the music and cinematography combine to body slam you into submission, then it’s Pattinson’s performance that does you in with an elbow drop from the top rope.
Connie Nikas isn’t just a bad dude – he displays the characteristics of a sociopath. He shows no hesitation about lying, misleading, and leaving destruction in his wake as long as he gets what he wants. Connie ropes his own mentally-challenged brother into a bank robbery, and his actions only get more treacherous as the film goes on. He is flat-out abhorrent, and yet you kind of want to root for the guy. There aren’t many actors with the charisma and acting chops to pull off a character with Connie’s complexities, given the unflattering light the film paints him in, and Good Time only works because of Pattinson’s wild-eyed performance.
Connie reminds me of Al Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. Both men see themselves as criminal masterminds, when they’re usually only the smartest dumb guys in the room. Bug-eyed, twitchy, and unkempt, Connie looks as though Pattinson’s Twilight character Edward spent the past decade feeding on meth addicts and coke fiends. Connie is such a beautiful train wreck that it’s impossible to look away, and rather than rooting against him, we’re left in awe of his ruthlessness and guile. You enjoy watching him escape disaster if only to see what he’ll do next.
There’s one aspect of Good Time that is still picking away at me, and that’s the film’s depiction of black people. Here are some reasons why: when the Nikas brothers rob a bank, they do it in blackface. When Nick arrives in jail, the inmates are mostly black. A black security guard gets beaten to a pulp, drugged, and left for the police. Connie seduces and misleads a black teenage girl as though he were on To Catch a Predator. The Safdie’s are clearly making a statement about racial dynamics, and I’m still considering what they’re trying to say.
There are a couple ways of looking at this. One is that the Safdies are showing us how bad men get away with murder, while people of colour take the fall. The other interpretation is that like many filmmakers, the Safdies insert people of colour as a shorthand for personality traits. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not the latter option. Hopefully with a few more films under their belts, they will only grow more adept at expressing complex racial dynamics in their films.
Reagrdless, Good Time is 2017’s most exhilarating film. Movies rarely come along and deliver such a non-stop adrenaline rush. Anchored by Pattinson’s exceptional performance, it will make you twitch, squirm, and want to cover your eyes – but you’ll enjoy every moment of discomfort. Fans of pulpy crime sagas from the likes of Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Walter Hill can’t afford to miss Good Time.