It’s amazing how a city can come alive at night, pulsing with an electric vitality much like that of the human heart. Lights flicker in the sky and alongside busy streets like millions of curious, blinking eyes. Heavy traffic honks and hums in constant waves while citizens and tourists crowd the air with vigorous chatter. Dwelling beneath this proud, ostensibly beautiful veneer is a level of raw and unforgiving intensity with a cruel penchant for devouring weary people. This same relentless anxiety fills the frames of Good Time, one of the finest films of 2017. Directed by virtuoso brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, this thrilling caper gifts us incredibly magnetic characters on a strange odyssey through New York that quickly spirals into a perilous, neon-painted nightmare.
Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), stares at the floor in his therapist’s office. He has a history of violent behavior and his developmental disabilities prevent a full understanding of the brutal reality he lives in. In stomps Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), the unpredictable older brother. He cuts Nick’s session short and hastily whisks him out the door, labeling the shrink’s methods as nothing but toxic nonsense. Connie believes the city is poisoning them both and to truly be free, they need to get out fast. But a fresh start is always expensive, so Connie convinces Nick to mask up and help him rob a bank.
With stolen cash in tow, their escape unfolds quite easily until the moment a dye pack explodes inside the bag, clouding the entire backseat of their getaway car. It instantly blinds the driver, who then panics and slams into a long line of vehicles waiting for a red light to turn green. The brothers bail out the back doused in a thick shade of magenta. Minutes after taking refuge in the bathroom of a pizzeria, they shuffle down the empty sidewalk in new clothes, passing brownstones and parked cars hoping to blend in with the neighborhood regulars. When a cop tries to flag them down, Nick panics and dashes off. Connie has no choice but to follow. A Friedkin-esque foot chase ensues, resulting in Nick’s capture and eventual incarceration at Riker’s Island.
Knowing his brother can’t endure jail for long, Connie hits the pavement on a frantic quest to set Nick free. First he enlists the aid of his fragile, dependent girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When he deceptively convinces her to charge Nick’s bail to her mother’s credit card, we get the feeling he’s exploited this weakness before. The massive transaction then fails and her mom calls to intervene. Corey shrieks agony and embarrassment into the phone, unmasking the full extent of her debilitating vulnerability. In this moment we realize just how easily Connie can manipulate others. His actions are filthy and despicable, but they’re not without legitimate purpose. The sympathetic portrait of his difficult, often foolish decisions begs the audience to work a bit harder in casting judgement. Rather than writing Connie off as just another scumbag, we’re challenged to empathize and quietly ask ourselves, “How would I react in the face of such overwhelming adversity? What would I sacrifice to save someone I love?”
Connie discovers Nick was savagely beaten in prison and is currently recovering in the secure wing of a nearby hospital. He ditches Corey without hesitation and decides to sneak in under the guise of a tired visitor with an ailing father. When the guard on duty leaves for a snack, Connie hurriedly rescues a mangled man hidden beneath a wad of bloody bandages. To elaborate on what transpires next would spoil the film’s exhilarating final act. Let’s just say it involves infiltrating an amusement park and an elusive bottle of Sprite spiked with LSD.
In terms of pacing, Good Time glides with unparalleled rhythm. The cuts are often patient and precise with long, lingering takes and intimate closeups. Other sequences jump with rapid abandon, requiring the viewer to focus or risk getting left behind. Editors Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein achieve something extraordinary with this meticulous technique. It’s rare for a film to make the spectator feel the exact same emotions as the protagonist, but here we have no choice. The character’s urgency is transferred to the audience with the help of a dominant, singular point of view. We feel Connie’s anguish, we share his looming fears, and each time a new predicament diverts his progress, we’re right there wondering what he’ll do next.
Though the editing is paramount to the film’s unique visual style, the outlandishly brilliant soundtrack is the thread that sews the story together. Oneohtrix Point Never’s composition triumphs with ingenious arrangements that bulge with emphatic dream waves and throbbing cosmic synth. His gritty, hair-raising harmonies glimmer with the DNA of legendary film composers like Jonny Greenwood, John Carpenter, Goblin, and Tangerine Dream. Much like the work of these musical giants, ONP’s eccentric sounds enhance the complex cinematic world envisioned by the filmmakers, unraveling profound depths that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The Safdies are firmly indebted to a cast of stellar supporting actors who bring vicious flavor to their project. Standout Buddy Duress, who first starred in the brothers’ 2014 film Heaven Knows What, fills his scenes with skittish realism, stealing the spotlight with Ray’s incessant complaining and riveting flashback monologue. Leigh is sharp and heartbreaking as Corey despite her tragically short screen time. Barkhad Abdi disappears into another brief but striking role as a security guard named Dash who tries to nab Connie and Ray but only ends up busting himself. Newcomer Taliah Webster is also quite impressive as a teenager unknowingly implicated in a dangerous game, left to silently ponder like a confused member of the audience who abandoned her seat and wandered into the movie. This diverse array of talent is foundational to the overall function of the narrative. The actors boldly take charge and create magnificent characters who occupy dysfunctional families and fractured communities, underlining the very same hardships the Nikas brothers hope to evade.
In the creation of Good Time, Benny Safdie occupied a legion of duties—co-directing, co-editing, and sound mixing—but a wistful performance as Nick Nikas is his most remarkable contribution. Due to a lack of opportunity for mentally challenged actors, an argument against his casting would be fair and understood, but it would fail to recognize the gripping compassion and respect Safdie brings to the character. His rendering of Nick isn’t a simple caricature but a thunderous portrayal summoned from deep within his soul. With a gruff voice and deeply inquisitive eyes, Safdie perfectly embodies a man eroded by pain and indifference, searching for peace in a ruthless universe.
The true champion of this film, however, is none other than Pattinson, in a nearly incognito exhibition of supreme acting ability. Any doubts surrounding his leading-man capabilities are eradicated with his work in this film. He commands the screen with great control, slithering and slanting through New York like a chameleon, constantly shapeshifting to adapt and survive. Pattinson’s fearlessness helps to convey every ripple of Connie’s suffering and every burn of his scorching desire for a better life. His monumental star-power has been undeniable since the Twilight era, but with Good Time, Pattinson bravely proclaims to the world of cinema that his fascinating career is just getting warmed up.
The Safdie brothers, along with their valiant circus of collaborators, have succeeded in crafting a bizarre slice of colorful pulp-noir. Their sizzling frames shout with a merciless energy similar to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. At the end of great films like these, we’re stuck with questions that don’t necessarily yield concrete answers. We’re unable to put these films away after the credits. They linger and sting until we watch them again and again, peeling back each and every layer to see what may be hiding underneath. Good Time possesses this same endearing spirit. It’s a hypnotic masterpiece that will lure you in and never let you go.