The directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie brought a haunting portrait of the underworld of junkies in New York City with their powerful film Heaven Knows What. Now the brother directors are returning once again to the dark, dingy corners of the New York City underworld with Good Time, a neon-infused nightmare of unending tragedy rife with tension and black comedy. Good Time further establishes the Safdie Brothers as vital filmmakers capturing the unseen corners of society with cinematic veracity that doesn’t judge its characters.
Good Time opens with Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) in the middle of a therapy session. He’s obviously afflicted by some kind of mental impairment, the details of which are never fully disclosed. His session is interrupted by his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson), who pulls his brother out of the office. Connie has a plan and needs his brother to back him up in a daring daylight robbery of a bank. During their getaway, though, a dye pack explodes and the two brother are quickly stranded on the streets with the police on their back. During the fray, Connie is able to escape but Nick is apprehended.
This sets Connie on a journey to get his brother out of jail while avoiding apprehension himself. He attempts to weasel money out of Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he has planned a vacation with. When it’s revealed that Nick has been beaten in jail and is now hospitalized, Connie attempts to break his brother out of the hospital. This will lead Connie on an odyssey where he’ll find himself in the company of a young black girl Crystal (Taliah Webster) and a beat up ex-con Ray (Buddy Duress), with the latter and Connie in search of a valuable Sprite bottle full of LSD.
Robert Pattinson gives the performance of his career as the no-goodnik Connie. The heartthrob pays no concerns to matters of likability with such a deplorable character, one that brings ruin to all who come across his path. Every action this character undertakes brings about untold pain and misery for everyone around him and yet he pays not a second thought to these consequences, just barreling along in his own myopic way. As the story unfolds and the tension continues to ramp up, you cringe each time you see Pattinson’s Connie convince another doomed soul to help him on his solipsistic journey.
The screenplay for Good Time is written by Josh Safdie and his Heaven Knows What collaborator Ronald Bronstein, and the script wastes no time in establishing this seedy underworld that Connie must navigate. The tension mounts from the moment Connie and Nick engage in the robbery and never relents even when the sleazy Connie is hiding out from the authorities. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Connie is absolutely doomed on his journey and each action is just taking down someone else before he’s that eventual last domino to fall. While the film never asks you to empathize with Pattinson’s Connie, it’s impossible not to feel some tinge of sadness each time this awful person’s mission destroys everyone he comes into contact with.
Like Heaven Knows What, the Safdie Brothers show themselves incredibly adept at using close ups and color to paint their frame with a dream-like quality than quickly shift into a nightmare. Good Time has a neon color scheme that is hypnotic and intoxicating, a hallucinatory palate that can shift into a bad trip at a moment’s notice.
And yet the Safdie Brothers never inject Good Time with a kind of preachy moralism. They don’t allow their cinema to issue judgement on the characters and allow the individual moral compass of each member of the audience to judge the characters. Robert Pattinson plays a low life lying sack of you-know-what and that lack of likability doesn’t hinder the film at all. The Safdie Brothers are able to pull tension and drama out of the dregs of society to a degree unlike anybody else working today because they feel no need to inject a moralism to their stories. Good Time isn’t a movie of amorality, but it doesn’t feel the need to lecture the audience about the actions of its central character which is obviously deplorable. Whether or not you can tolerate that depends entirely on your own views.