With a barnstorming turn from Robert Pattinson, grimy design, and synth-y aural-aesthetic as the film’s selling points, a soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never is not the only electric element of the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. This is genre cinema that puts a beating heart at the centre of its twisty, metropolitan plot, before repeatedly ripping it out to jaw-dropping effect. Fantastic.
Almost as though he’d grown tired of never quite being given the chance to shine, it was Pattinson himself who sought out the part of Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas, reaching out to Josh and Ben Safdie for work in the wake of their 2014 feature Heaven Knows What. Clearly, Pattinson knows what he’s capable of and, thus, it’s a thrill to find just how savvy the move was. Good Time is far and away the peak of the star’s career to date.
Connie is a small time crook in New York, with a ‘mentally handicapped’ younger brother – Nick, played by Ben Safdie himself – whose plan to rob a bank and escape the city goes catastrophically wrong when the quick-thinking cashier slips a dye pack into their loot bag. Just as it might seem that the brothers have gotten away, the pack goes off, swamps them with red dust and veers their getaway vehicle into the back of a parked car. A police chase later and Nick winds up custody whilst Connie’s on the run, calling in favours to secure the $10,000 he needs to buy a bail bond and free his brother. Along the way are Jennifer Jason Leigh’s flakey, sort-of-girlfriend, Corey and teenager Crystal – an assured feature debut by Taliah Webster.
Taking much of the look, sound and themes of Heaven Knows What and ramping it up tenfold, Good Time is dominated by a masterfully crafted aesthetic of blue and red lighting, framed within tight, claustrophobic camerawork, and to a thrumming electronic beat. The latter: a soundtrack that came away with the top prize at Cannes and features collaboration work with Iggy Pop. It’s gritty, it’s oppressive and it’s fantastically alluring in its unholy juxtaposition of the hallucinogenic and shockingly visceral. Spielberg’s Minority Report comes to mind – not least with the inclusion of a fridge full of dubious bottles – but meshed too with the feel of Carlos, Run Lola Run and Drive. Like each of those films, a sense of dynamism drives the storytelling that is mightily rewarding.
For all its relentlessly mobile animosity, what really stands the film apart, certainly shifting to a gear that Heaven Knows What just missed, is the level of moral ambiguity at work here. Pattinson and Safdie excel in capturing the fraternal George and Lennie relationship of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (‘It’s just you and me. I’m your friend’), lending troubled humanity to the increasingly unsettling events on screen. Yet, what’s most powerful here is the degree to which the Safdie’s challenge their audience to both love and loathe their protagonists.
Connie is a character who will pause to help a sick old lady have a drink in one scene, and beat a man to the ground in another. With the Safdie’s being fiendishly aware of the moral anxieties at play here, watch as a television is flicked between similarly murky territories. Coming out of the, instantly iconic, finale, concentration is required to digest all that has happened and whether it was okay to like Connie. Put it this way, Bosley Crowther would have hated it.
As for the title, ‘good time’ is the term for early jail release; shortened imprisonment for good behaviour. Good Time, the film, is loaded with characters newly released from previous sentences, desperate not to go back but without the means or circumstances to actually have a good time in the real world. From this cruel irony, a brilliant thriller is born.