From directing duo and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie comes Good Time, an ambitious balancing act that comes close to taking on too much, but delivers far more in return.
Good Time is the rare film that works successfully as an entertaining, pulse-racing thrill ride and an incisive character and societal critique.
The film begins by introducing Nick Nikas played by Benny Safdie. He sits in front of a social worker answering a series of questions. The questions, ranging from simple word association to personal history inquiries, are difficult for Nick to answer and he begins to cry with frustration.
As the man across from Nick tries to make sense of his frustration, someone else bursts through the door to the office: Nick’s brother Connie, played by Robert Pattinson.
This is Pattinson as we have never seen him. The suave British heartthrob that audiences are accustomed to is nowhere to be found. Pattinson inhabits the role of Connie entirely, filling the entire screen with his presence. Connie is an exposed wire, sparking and flaring against everything he touches, pushing the energy of the film to the edge and challenging the audience to go along with him.
After bursting into the office, Connie drags Nick from the room despite the protests of the social worker. The man tells Connie that Nick needs help, but Connie refuses to listen. Connie is vocal about his distrust for the man and the institution he represents and is determined to help Nick in the way he sees fit.
This scene establishes the key dynamic that drives the entire film; Nick needs help, but Connie refuses to let anyone help Nick but himself. The film complicates this dynamic by making Connie the very force that Nick needs saving from.
Only minutes later, Connie and Nick rob a bank. Well, sort of. In truth, Connie robs a bank and makes Nick come along. After an intense police chase, Nick gets caught and Connie gets away.
Connie forces Nick to bear the responsibility for a decision Nick had no discernable choice in. It’s here that the rest of the film takes shape; Connie is determined to do whatever he must to get Nick out of jail.
The story spirals into increasingly chaotic and convoluted situations spawned by Connie’s own misguided choices. It’s easy to view the robbery as the genesis for the story in Good Time. To a certain extent, that’s true. But the Safdie brothers use the events depicted in the movie as a part of a larger narrative, one not directly addressed, but subtly formed by skillful storytelling and a powerhouse performance from Robert Pattinson.
Connie’s character holds an innate distrust for the institutions that attempt to control his life. As such, he seeks to live outside these institutions and challenge them in a way that is profitable for him.
The film does not necessarily condone Connie’s belief system or his actions, but it does not invalidate them either. Instead, the film works to simultaneously depict Connie’s values and illuminate their many contradictions.
As Connie attempts to live outside the law and beyond the reach of controlling institutions, he becomes an institution unto himself and those around him – chief among those affected by Connie’s choices is Nick.
Connie forces Nick to conform to his own values. It doesn’t take long for the audience to see how negatively this impacts Nick. As Nick sits in jail, Connie continues making his own choices and mistakes, ensnaring more people into the mess of his own creation. Through Connie, the Safdie brothers create an anarchistic force that rails against the dictating cultural infrastructure.
What’s so striking about Good Time is the way the Safdie brothers turn this insightful critique on culture and character into a genuine good time; the movie sustains an incredible energy that vacillates between dark humor, compelling drama, and heart racing action. It’s difficult not to see shades of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Michael Mann’s Thief in the film.
The distinct contrast between the Good Time’s implicit critique and the way it chooses to tell the story is really exciting to watch, even when it’s not successful.
Despite the film’s overall achievement, there are moments where it drops the ball; in one particular sequence, a character recounts the events that led him to be where he is. It’s an entertaining flashback, but the abrupt tonal shift that comes from it makes it feel like little more than a distraction.
However, the supporting cast including veteran Jennifer Jason Leigh and newcomer Taliah Webster help buoy moments in the film that might not work otherwise. With Pattinson’s performance casting a tall shadow over the film, it’s a delight to see other actors going toe to toe with him without attempting to replicate his energy.
Good Time is not the kind of movie that anyone would describe as delicate; it’s violent, frenzied, and even a little unhinged. Above all, it’s very adept at depicting chaos. Within the turmoil and madness of Connie’s adventures, the film emanates a distinct and resolute purpose
No moment articulates this as clearly as when Connie is sitting in a stolen car with one of his companions, contemplating breaking into an amusement park. He says, “I think something very important is happening and it’s deeply connected to my purpose.”
Pattinson delivers the line with a pointed sincerity, but this moment encapsulates the contradiction that governs the film. Connie wants to try to rationalize the chaos in his life by connecting it to his purpose, but in doing so, he refuses to accept the responsibility for his actions.
As a result, Connie departs from any form of recognizable realism. Good Time takes a neon-lit, electronica-infused trip down the rabbit hole. The film is all at once totally familiar, while still feeling brand new; it’s like a story you heard told once, never experienced. The Safdie brothers have proven themselves capable of delivering a cinematic experience that captures how fun and frightening movies can be, while never sacrificing a moment of insightful critique. Good Time is a must see.