In the end credits of the Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, the first name to appear under the special thanks is Martin Scorsese. I don’t know what went on behind the camera, but they’d owe him that much for Mean Streets (1973) alone; like a classic Scorsese crime picture, Good Time is about reckless hoodlums who are almost smart enough to realize how dumb they are. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a New York City kid who ropes his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie, stepping in front of the camera) into helping him commit a bank robbery. When it goes south, Nick is caught and thrown in prison, and Connie spends a long night bouncing through the outer boroughs in a series of increasingly desperate, ill-advised plans to score some cash to get him out, with dawn and inevitability on the way.
It is a film with style to spare, full of rave colors, sharp editing, and a few stunningly controlled helicopter shots. And fittingly, the key question hovering over the film is the same that has hounded Scorsese, and that’s whether or not there’s more to the film than just an invigorating shot of pure cinema in the arm. There is: to its credit as a film, Good Time is not a good time, but a bad trip laced with social criticism and MDMA. It is an overload, a discomforting vision of America’s strivers, fuck-ups, and have-nots, precise and convincing in its earthy detail of mid-to-lower-rung city life. (Essays can be and have been written on which characters the Safdies make white or black, as class throws the two into the same boat but race keeps them judged by different standards.) As an actor, Pattinson has been looking for arthouse cred for a while now—just like fellow Twilight star Kristen Stewart—by working with directors like David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, and James Gray. And it’s to his credit that by the end, what starts looking like a “a bunch of authentic New Yorkers plus an English matinee idol” ends with him having disappeared into the role. Besides, you’d need the looks of a matinee idol to get away with half of the scams he attempts.
The harsh, jagged nature of the film has its limits, particularly for a film whose biggest flaw is how it keeps you at arm’s length while yanking the chain. (That is, if a film isn’t at least half-interested in tenderness, you can easily spend two hours watching anti-heroes ruin their lives without growing to know or care for them.) But the finale, in which the two words of the title are spoken, suggests an ambivalent moral that the only responsible path forward in life is not fast or exciting but drab and dutiful and banal. A Scorsesian theme if there ever was one, and enough to say that the Safdies’ neon odyssey, already showered with cinephile acclaim, could be the breakthrough of an outstanding body of work. Scorsese himself has signed on as an executive producer of their next film. Fingers crossed.
Good Time was a darling at the Cannes Film Festival last May and is now available for download. Keep it legal, please.