Good Time (2017) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong, bloody violence and language
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Taliah Lennice Webster, Peter Verby, Barkad Abdi, Necro
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Screenplay: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Review published September 2, 2017
Co-directors Benny Safdie (who also appears in the film) and Josh Safdie (who also co-scripted) helm this low-budget thriller that follows a two-bit criminal named Constantine 'Connie' Nikas (Pattinson, Life). Connie 'rescues' his developmentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie, John's Gone) from psychiatric evaluations that seem to upset him more than help him. Feeling like it might bolster his confidence, Connie makes Nick an accomplice in a bank robbery that goes awry, landing the mentally and emotionally challenged younger brother in Riker's Island, where he will certainly become an easy victim for bigger, more predatory convicts. It's up to Connie to come up with enough bail money in order to get Nick out of harm's way before it's too late, but the only way to come up with fast cash seems to commit further crimes that heighten his peril.
It's a fairly simple plot, only complicated by the fact that Connie seems to be making decisions that further their predicament into increasingly dangerous territory. From the poorly planned bank robbery to having to stay apace of the cops to not being able to afford bail money without drastic action, with time of the essence as Nick's temperament and inability to understand how to avoid emotional outbursts, it's a race against time to get him out of jail before the other prisoners put Nick in his place, for good.
A bit of a gritty throwback to the kinds of b-movie thrillers one might find coming out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, from its electronica-thumping soundtrack, its ruddy cinematography, and its emphasis on tight edits with extreme close-ups (one immediately sees the pores on Safdie's nose in ways rare to see on film). That use od very tight close-ups recalls what it was like to watch those low-budget dramas and thrillers from the decades ago on VHS, where pan-and-scan chopped out much of the image save for the heads of the person doing the talking at the time.
In addition, blowing up the image to that extent on videotape also made the film appear grainy and muddy on your TV screen, which further adds to the old-style vibe that the Safdies seem to be deliberately evoking through their choice to downgrade the quality of the projected image while tying it to a score that one could hear on tension-filled suspensers like Midnight Express and its ilk forty years prior. Still, there are great visuals to be had even with the retro-grade, with some gorgeous drone-mounted camera tracking shots over New York, as well as the increasingly dim and claustrophobic approach to framing that forces us to feel the walls closing in around Connie with every successive action he takes.
Conflicting the narrative with some viewers will be the difficulty we have in sympathizing with Connie as we watch him try to help his brother out of a situation that he feels will be certain death, especially as it is entirely his fault for that brother to have arrived at that unenviable destination of prison by making him assist in the bank robbery. However, despite our conflicted feelings about the main character, the Safdies generate a good deal of tension in seeing how quickly things devolve for him, as well as in our curiosity in how he's going to dig himself out of the progressively nasty hole in which he's found himself, utilizing his people skills to turn things into his favor, and yet not always for the better overall.
In particular, the underlying commentary about the use of race in order to manipulate events is potent, starting with the choice to don black-face masks to change their appearance for their robbery. Ex-convict Connie knows how cops and correction officers racially profile in the course of deducing who is at fault when crimes are committed. Victims in this film are often minorities, and in one case, an immigrant, while Connie uses his white skin privilege to try to stay out of harm's way. The "Pepe the Frog" inclusion, a character that has been co-opted by white nationalists to the point where many view it as a symbol of hate speech, further gives the 'white makes right' mindset for Connie as he tries to play all sides against one another by stoking subliminal prejudices.
Good Time also features solid, natural performances, especially from Robert Pattinson, who commits to his role completely, utilizing his charm and intensity to good measure throughout. One sympathizes with Connie for loving and wanting to protect his brother, and yet we grow more conflicted, as we see that he might actually be doing more harm than good through his protection, especially once he gets more desperate to find a way and solve the situation and escape scot free. Nick is the one we initially don't sympathize with due to seeming edgy and likely to unhinge, but as we learn of his inability to cope with situations that someone with a more adjusted mindset would, we do begin to fear that something bad will happen to Nick, whether or not Connie comes to bail him out.
In the end, while we hope for the best outcome for all, it becomes apparent that, despite his love for his brother, he is that proverbial rotten apple that doesn't have the proper moral compass to understand that his ways of trying to make situations better only make things worse, and that is likely going to mean he's going to take Nick down with him in his descent to certain doom. He's the older brother of someone who relies on him intellectually to protect him, which means that Connie grew up feeling like he had to do whatever was necessary to provide, regardless of what the law says -- he's the alpha and operates on that premise.
In many other roles, non-professional actors flesh out the believability for their respective characters, looking and sounding as authentic, and perhaps more so, than recognizable actors might. Combine real New Yorkers in the mix with great external shots of the city, it's as authentic an experience at seeing the city's underbelly as there has been since the early days of Martin Scorsese, who, not coincidentally, serves as an executive producer on the film. That's not to say the film doesn't have a recognizable face or two, as Jennifer Jason Leigh (Morgan) plays Connie's troubled enabler girlfriend, and Barkad Abdi, who was a rare non-professional actor to garner an Academy Award nomination (for Captain Philips), also makes an appearance as an amusement park security guard who finds punishment for his good deeds.
While it's not a film that builds on mystery, there are some interesting twists in the way the plot develops that further gives the impression that we're watching real criminals stumbling their way through a botched crime than in one that tries to wow us with suspense. It's like watching a dramatization of one of the segments on "World's Dumbest Criminals", though in the midst of the action, our sympathies are conflicted throughout on whether we want to see these criminals get away with it in this fast-paced, retro-style drama. It emphasizes a realistic approach, even if some of the actions seem drastic, and in so doing, becomes a riveting experience for those who appreciate crime dramas that hook you in with stylistic cinematic techniques and a commitment to lean storytelling to capture the mood of desperation, letting us know how quick a life can completely fall apart through the circumstances that result from bad decisions and immoral actions.
The Safdies provide lean exposition in order to concentrate much more on their flawed-but-developed characters, trying to engage their audience through fast-paced visual and aural rhythms to capture what it might be like to be a two-bit criminal in the dark, dingy, ravenously enveloping streets of New York with an ever elusive chance to make it out. Good Time may not be a 'good time' in tone, but most crime-drama aficionados will likely find it worth their time to check out.
©2017 Vince Leo