“This place where you are now can be a lot of fun if you let it. You’re going to have a good time.”
Not since last year’s incredibly moving and mournful One More Time with Feeling have I heard an original song that so deeply understood the heart at its story’s center. The documentary about musician Nick Cave and the death of his eldest son morphs from a creative endeavor into an ode of lost love, most emotionally available while pleading in the called out echoes of the ethereal song, “I Need You.” The entire album (titled The Skeleton Tree. Both the film and the album are available on Amazon Prime) wrecks havoc on the heart and enriches its moments of existential drama with hope. In Good Time, the ferocious latest film from the Safdie Brothers, the lyrics of Oneohtrix Point Never’s title track act similarly, never becoming ancillary background noise and blossoming into an integral piece of this Big Apple’s pie. We hear, “The pure always act from love; the damned always act from love,” and despite the film’s rabid bite and pugilist style, the lyrics humanize the depravity. The love acted upon in Good Time is ugly, it is ruthless, and it incarcerates our empathy to point of worthwhile frustration.
Not long into a therapy session with the hearing impaired and slightly slow Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie, a co-director with his sibling) does big brother Connie Nikas (Robert Pattison) barge into the room. Nick was at a breakthrough moment; tears falling, details pouring out, fully revealing his trauma. Connie shames the therapist and steals Nick’s awakening moment. Why? To attempt a bank robbery worth 65 grand. Connie’s benchmark moment is the thievery itself, specifically because it says so much about his character for the film’s entirety. Even afterwards, elevated on an adrenaline high, Connie looks at Nick and tells him that he’s incredible. At first it feels true, but as we see his ulterior motives show through and his self-interest turn into desperation, we get the sense that Connie merely prods his hindered sibling into coercion with his corrosive coaching. Would he applaud his brother if he didn’t have a bag full of money? Judging by Connie’s fast accumulation of wrongs incapable of turning them into rights, I don’t think so.
Like an addict injecting their last hit, Connie’s elevated and elated cloud nine jubilation soon spirals downward into a painful squall on the streets of New York City. Nick was caught on their escape, taken to Rikers Island, badly beaten, transported to a hospital. This is where Connie becomes mostly unlikable, and because of Pattinson’s stunning performance, just as remarkably watchable. First he tries to scam his older, shrill, dependent lady friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s cast aside once her Mom’s credit card doesn’t go through to collect Nick’s bail. Connie befriends a colored woman in Queens and talks his way out of the corner, nurturing an emotionally abusive relationship with the elder lady’s grand-daughter. Later on he tries to sell off a bottle of LSD after twisting arrows with Ray (Buddy Duress), a recently released and alcoholic inmate of the system. Connie beats an African-American security guard (Barkhad Abdi) within inches of his life. He disobeys every false order of trust and lies more than he ever really lives. Connie Nikas is a scavenger of hope who only digs through the seediest and nastiest dumpsters he can find. He thinks himself to be better; we find out, with him, as looks and feels dirtier by the second, that he isn’t.
Some notable critics have actively voiced an aversion to this film, stating that the story seems to be all too actively disenchanted with women and all too confrontational with people of color. There are arguments to be made for both sides. What does it say about Connie that he dresses himself and Nick as construction workers in tight-skinned rubber blackface? That he asserts his white privilege subconsciously, acting with force and with inbred vitriol. We can label him as a violent racist. But what more does it say about a man on the run, constantly dipping and diving, abusing and using, a heat-seeking missile destined for a destitute life? Connie is as poor in savings as he is poor in spirit, so morally bankrupt that he can’t even convincingly forge a check. Pattinson delivers the performance of his career as a man presumably fueled by a big RedBull, only to have him fall just moments after lifting off the Tarmac. Good Time has no business flying around in Connie’s lofty aspirations, nor should it. There’s enough mess made to call for clean-up on aisle seven. Good Time is important because you come away knowing that this man got away with too much because of the color of his skin, and because of this truth, we try to rationalize the same film without a white lead. It’d have ended after 20 minutes if that was the case. The Safdie Brothers exaggerate and amplify and lie beyond their wits because no matter how dirty or trashy or bleach-blonde this Caucasian man appears, he’s still given the benefit of the doubt. This is a film built upon the cancerous nature of lies and the methods of targeted truth, and how both are uniformly viewed through an unjust lens.
One of the most frustrating attributes of most modern cinema is that, no matter the financing or the so-called “movement” that the film is said to belong to, the bookends of the story themselves have – for whatever reason – fallen by the wayside. Beginnings and endings don’t seem to matter as much as they once did. They are, in my opinion, at their very best when the latter mirrors the former from a slightly different angle. Good Time is a great film because the beginning breaks your heart and ends by freeing itself of the opening’s domineering and confrontational control, detaching altogether and floating through the space to come. Benny & Josh Safdie share a stylistic similarity to fellow New Yorker John Cassavetes’ pulp approach in this respect, taking a sophisticated yet amateur method to the movements of the camera itself, focusing on the faces of the performers with a claustrophobic and documentarian gaze, attempting to peer into the pupils of such sad souls who rarely have the courage to look right back at us. In the end we stare at Connie, a man who acts before he thinks, who claims to have been a dog in his past life, and as Pattinson’s eyes refuse to connect with ours, this assertive belief in reincarnation looks to be true. Regret and sin have fully set in. We know the Good Time is up because, like a guilty dog, acknowledging us would only signify wrongdoing. You can’t heal these wounds by licking them, nor can you ignore them entirely. Good Time stuck with me because it courageously and stupidly tried to do so. Anymore, challenging American films like this one are too few and far between.
“I think something very important is happening and it’s deeply connected to my purpose. It’s important.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5