“We find an unusual balance, birthed and fostered with ease: a dour aesthetic coupled with vivid punchiness.”
by Ken Bakely
The word that keeps coming to my mind is “propulsive.” Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time propels itself at a relentless rate, speeding through a dirt-caked, burned-out, and neon-blasted version of New York City, with its bug-eyed protagonist on a quest with a single objective, but one that keeps rolling itself up in more setbacks, complications, and digressions. Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Robert Pattinson), a petty thief who looks after his mentally disabled younger brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie), brings his sibling along to a bank heist. The initial operation is successful, but the problems start mounting right after: the dye packs on the money go off, rendering a good fraction of it useless. And then the cops get ahold of their whereabouts, setting off a mad pursuit. Connie escapes, but Nick doesn’t.
Obviously, this can’t hold. The kid won’t make it in the prison system. When Connie finds out that Nick was injured after getting in a fight in a detention center, he hatches a last-minute scheme to sneak into the hospital and break him out. It’s not an easy task, and even if successful, comes with the problem of dealing with the aftermath. But Good Time does not bore us with the procedural details of such a proposal. Rather, it forces us into the moment, and then into the multi-dimensional, chaotic consequences, which rally the story into a completely new direction and show off the mounting insanity of its universe.
Throughout this, the Safdies prove their mastery of the unexpected, the humorous, and the unexpectedly humorous. For all the ways that Good Time deals in the uncomfortable – sudden bursts of violence, rough settings, and harsh confrontations – it also has a thorough sense of entertainment and liveliness. The film’s best moments, whether it be a wild goose chase through a hospital or a desperate trek through a closed down amusement park, are marked by a free-wheeling giddiness which lives under the story momentum and character development. We find an unusual balance, birthed and fostered with ease: a dour aesthetic coupled with vivid punchiness.
Most of this is attributable to a good script, confident direction, and disciplined editing. But it also depends on actors who understand the complexities of the project. Robert Pattinson anchors Good Time. He is aware, he is fluid, and he adapts to each moment and mood. Each of Connie’s seeming successes is met with a matching failure, including one big one which shifts the entire power balance of the story. The credit goes to the Safdies, and co-writer Ronald Bronstein, for treating the mid-film plot twist less like a cheap shot and more like an inevitable development. But Pattinson’s performance is instrumental in actually letting it play onscreen. His confidence in the leadup to it is foolhardy, at once hinting at a shoe about to drop, and reminding us of how the singular, urgent drive of the character leads to his predicament. It’s an example of the protagonist as a mirror, reflecting anticipated audience intuition while maintaining integrity to the story.
In retrospect, the first clue of Good Time’s jettisoning speed and sandpaper texture comes during the bank robbery which starts things off. Disregarding the unrealistic movie trope of a heist requiring big, loud actions or blazing guns, we see a much more common “note job.” Connie and Nick, wearing masks, walk up to the teller and pass her a note, demanding $65,000, claiming that they are armed, and handing over a backpack to put the cash in. She takes the paper, writes back that she’ll have to go into the vault to retrieve that much money, takes the bag, walks off, and fills it up. No other patron or employee is aware of what’s happening until the brothers leave. It’s a setpiece both engaging in its given intensity, and impressive because of how it establishes a sense of control. The feeling holds. Despite the lengths to which things escalate, the feeling holds. Despite the unfortunate tendency for the third act to feel rushed, and therefore anticlimactic, the feeling holds. Whatever one might say about the Safdies and their bleak worldbuilding, they are never inconsistent.