Ben and Josh Safdie’s new crime-drama, Good Time, is not your usual foray into the genre. Where most crime films explore the life of a criminal, as in White Heat, or a group of gangsters working out their business over an extended period of time, as in The Godfather, Good Time takes place across a single day and focuses on a pair of delinquents, Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally-handicapped brother, Nick Nikas (director Ben Safdie in his first film role), as they commit a small, armed bank robbery and suffer the consequences that follow, namely the arrest of Nick and the subsequent confusion for Connie as he considers how to deal with the situation.
This seems a little slim in terms of narrative. How can one expect to care for a pair of criminals, especially if the film is only willing to show us their experience across a single day? And yet, simply put, Good Time offers one of the most aesthetically overwhelming, narratively succinct yet thematically investing film experiences that I’ve had in quite a while: to put it bluntly, it made a similar impact as Mad Max: Fury Road.
So what makes the storyline so engaging and the film so visually and aurally impressive? Well, firstly, there is the lead performance. Robert Pattinson, an actor who was once ridiculed for his partaking in the Twilight saga, has continually impressed with his ventures into the niche territory of independent cinema. From David Michôd’s The Rover to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, Pattinson has reinvigorated his career with an unpredictability that has led him to this moment: the performance of his career. With Connie, Pattinson is met with his most intricate character yet, as he desperately searches for a solution to his brother’s incarceration, following the failure of their bank robbery. This frenzy arouses a deeply aggressive feeling within Connie, and it’s in Pattinson’s naturalist expression of Connie’s anguish, through the complex, sombre and severe portrayal of a brutal man on a self-destructive yet singular path, that Good Time is able to absorb us for the full length of its run-time.
What adds even more to this immersive quality is the film’s music. While the credits allocate Ben Safdie in the supporting role to Pattinson’s lead, I’d argue that Oneohtrix Point Never’s score takes Safdie’s spot, imbuing the film with such energy and raw power that it morphs into its own being as the narrative unfolds. The guttural reverberations of the electronic synthesisers attack the senses, building upon the distressing scenario that faces Connie, saturating every footstep that he takes with purpose, pace and importance. As an experimental score, it’s unnerving and unforgettable. As a film score, it exists as a superlative example of how music can affect and accentuate a viewer’s experience.
Yet in spite of these manifest qualities, the intensity and subtle brilliance of Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein’s story has unfortunately gone unnoticed among the wide array of critical responses to the film. What may seem a little empty on the surface – a brother trying to break out his sibling – is in fact a multi-faceted, Foucauldian examination on the nature of crime and whether life as a prisoner/mental health patient does in fact grant an additional freedom of existence over and against a life on the streets. With Connie, his increasingly contentious actions bring his morality into question: does the crime define the man, or does the man define the crime? Good Time has no easy answer, a case of show rather than tell, a chance to encourage a more focused reception to the film, as one apprehends the justifiability of Connie’s relentless motivation.
Furthermore, it is in the experiences of Connie’s mentally-challenged brother, Nick, that we see the contemporary issues of a handicapped existence play out most effectively. As he speaks with his psychiatrist (Peter Verby), Nick is examined to the detail: everything he says is recorded, every action noted, every response backed up with additional questioning. And yet, despite Connie’s antagonistic nature, when Nick is in his company, he feels liberated in some way: he speaks more freely, trying to get things right for his brother. While this may prove controversial to some, it’s an unconventional stance that perpetuates Connie’s quest. As we follow the narrative, we support Connie, almost to the extent that we realise that Nick would be better off with his brother, rather than lingering, enclosed within the confines of an institution.
It’s a daring position to take and proves successful, even in the face of the questionable decisions that Connie takes to reach his goal. Good Time is a bleak film for sure: for all the luscious and vibrant quality of Sean Price Williams’ cinematography, there’s still a morose morality at the centre of the film. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended to those who wish for independent fare that takes risks, never straying too far from a gut-punch or a devastating turn-of-events. Pattinson excels and Oneohtrix Point Never’s score delivers an awe-inspiring blast of electronic resonance. Yet its true accomplishment lies within its storytelling. Brothers Ben and Josh Safdie have crafted an evocative and explosive piece of narrative filmmaking that demands to be seen, regardless of its limited release. While it may not live up to its title of giving you a ‘good time’, it will certainly leave you aware of what constitutes a ‘great movie’.