Film Review: Good Time

The Safdies take on the unfriendly streets of New York City once again, with a brutal, high-stakes crime film unforgiving in its pace and reminiscent of urban psychodramas of the ’70s in its grimy grit.
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With their fast-paced and craftily frenzied Heaven Knows What, brothers Joshua and Ben Safdie turned the streets of New York into a risky, unforgiving stage for addicts on the verge of breakdown. In Good Time, the co-directors take over the dimly lit avenues and shady alleys of the brutal big city once more for a flawlessly choreographed and boisterously orchestrated crime tale. The Safdies’ latest film is severe in its pace, crowded in its stylistic components (sometimes to a fault) and altogether unyielding in its characters’ snowballing desperation. The mise-en-scène evokes the feverishly lit, mysterious nighttime scenes and dread-ridden days of the defining ’70s cinematic era of urban psychodramas that included the likes of Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. The Safdies imbue their high-wire thrill ride with elements akin to those classics while putting their own contemporary, panic-provoking signature stamp on them.

That panic bleeds out of Good Time almost immediately, starting from its very first shot, when we are confronted with an extreme close-up of Nick Nikas (played by Ben Safdie himself), a mentally challenged man conversing with his counselor in a therapy session. Pondering his therapist’s endless logic-related questions (he is asked to associate words like “water” and “salt” and explain, to the best of his ability, the meaning of certain idioms), Nick grows increasingly anxious. A single tear rolls down his cheek before his protective (albeit manipulative) brother Connie (Robert Pattinson, in a revelatory, career-best performance) storms into the room and yanks him away. Their next move together, to our bewildered surprise, is to clumsily rob a bank.

The robbery, which (believe it or not) is still part of Good Time’s insane opening montage and can easily contend for the year’s best onscreen action sequence, doesn’t quite go as intended. The escape plan turns out to be a bust and multiple, maddeningly wrong steps eventually lead to Nick’s detainment by authorities. (Where is a getaway chauffeur as skilled as Baby Driver when Connie needs him?) Connie finds himself on his own in the city, racing a nightlong ticking clock to save his brother. As he exhausts the already limited options available to him—which include borrowing money from his manic love interest, Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—his odyssey becomes a dead-end trip, with Murphy’s Law-type negative scenarios coming from all directions. Among his troubles is a stranger named Ray (Buddy Duress) he is forced to unite with as a result of a grave error. As he makes his way from one obstacle to the next, he finds temporary refuge in the home of an old woman and her granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster).

Unfortunately, Good Time proves early on that it has little interest in female agency and empowerment. (The one-dimensional, poorly sketched, always frantic Corey is a tad painful to watch.) But it thankfully does right by its underlying engagement with and critique of racial bias and white privilege in America, while tightly chronicling a crime-gone-wrong to heart-pounding effect. It’s no coincidence that the brothers conduct the robbery in masks resembling black men in hoodies—they despicably use a false stereotype as their cover. Later in the film, Connie victimizes a black security officer (Barkhad Abdi) using nothing other than the unjust shield his whiteness coats him with. (He knows his innocence will be automatically assumed by onlookers and authorities.) Moreover, he arrogantly takes advantage of Crystal and her grandmother with that same entitlement and throws them under the bus without giving it much thought when his freedom is at odds with theirs.

Lit by Sean Price Williams’ heated cinematography that favors dark, red-hued imagery, Good Time often feels like a loud, over-stimulating theme-park ride. (In fact, a key section of the film takes place in just such a location and mercilessly doubles down on this sensation.) Add to that the frequent long takes, visually challenging, extreme close-ups and Oneohtrix Point Never’s deafening, nerve-racking electronic score, and you might find yourself feeling a tad suffocated by this ambitious effort whose extreme creative choices compete to attack your senses all at once. But there is no denying the power of that semi-claustrophobic feeling that toughens the gut punch you feel as the film races to its conclusion.

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