7.5 out of 10
Robert Pattinson as Connie Nikas
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Good Time Review:
What is the allure of watching crime happening? Is it the opportunity to engage in voyeurism of the forbidden or the natural reaction to watching a train wreck happen? Probably a bit of both and in the realm of the crime film very much down to the aesthetic the filmmakers blanket their crimes in. From the original Scarface to Melville and the cine de look, nothing has made crime so compelling as clothing it in stylish clothes and sets and giving its heroes and villains with the best dialogue, the sharpest wits. Who wouldn’t want to be one of Ocean’s Eleven? They were the smartest, the coolest, and the best even if no one else knew it.
The flip side is crime’s reality-laced brother where most of the dirty deeds are done by the lost and hopeless who don’t fully understand the nature or consequences of their actions as they eke out a living in squalor: the cautionary tale filmmakers professed to be making while covering their thieves and killers in glory. None of these people are having a Good Time and certainly not the Nikas brothers.
Connie and Nick Nikas (Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie) have their share of problems, but none of them are made better by their decision to rob a bank to finance an escape from New York to a farm in Virginia. When that decision literally blows up in their faces, Nick ends up in jail and Connie on the run with a bag full of marked money and no thought in his head except freeing his brother and getting their lives back on track. All that stands in their way is a wall full of cops, rotten luck and an ocean’s worth of bad life choices.
While there have been plenty of filmmakers who preferred to look at crime through a ‘realistic’ lens (and even the glamor guys might protest that they were, too), it’s really been since the ’70s that getting down into the dirt and muck was not just allowed but encouraged. Starting with indie gang films of the ’60s before migrating to the big leagues with stuff like The French Connection and Taxi Driver, slowly a sub-genre of grime crime has evolved to focus on mud and muck which not only infests its characters’ souls but the world around them. Where character and production merge together into one inseparable whole and the phrase ‘criminal underworld’ takes on much more literal meaning. Good Time is a sometime rousing, sometime vapid example of it with a few pearls to offer for its roll in the mud, chief among them being Pattinson’s Connie.
Either blessed or cursed with a degree of self-awareness everyone around him lacks, Connie isn’t just a one-eyed man among the blind. He has both of his eyes, constantly scanning everything in front of him, examining all options, searching for any angle, peering everywhere but inward. Within Connie, Pattinson is a constant, roving presence, like a shark unable to stop moving or he’ll drown. It would be easy to write off Connie as a collection of mannerisms, from his greasy look to his snappy growling demands, but his eyes tell a different story. Filled with desperation and fear, they are everything Connie’s scowling face is not, blasting out all of his pain and confusion even as he dances between ever-increasing rain drops and the police begin closing in on him. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Connie’s are spotlights. It’s an incredibly difficult and delicate bit of performance, but Pattinson manages with skill, never breaking a sweat (that we can tell) even as Connie does.
The Safdies certainly seem to recognize this as they zoom in on Pattinson’s face as often as possible, though not in the sordid, mercenary manner of commercial filmmakers using the movie star they’ve connected with to the utmost. They’re not actually looking at Pattinson at all, only at Connie because that’s all we get and all we need.
Beyond that, Good Time falls down, noticeably. In their effort to dig into the banality of a criminal life (and offer up the not particularly amazing discover that it is just as banal as regular life, if not more so) the Safdie’s spend much of their time chasing their tail. Like Connie Good Time must always be in motion because if it stops for a moment of introspection the shallowness of the whole endeavor will become clear as day – which is ultimately what happens. Also like Connie, the brothers Safdie are tactically brilliant, making strong decision after strong decision in the near term – from Pattinson’s casting to the ’80s-driven earworm score by Oneohtrix Point Never (a/k/a Daniel Lopatin) – but extremely fuzzy about how their endgame will actually play out.
Not all of it is on Pattinson’s shoulders. The screenplay by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein is rife with dark humor, particularly once Connie gets stuck with Caliph, the funhouse mirror version of himself he breaks out of the hospital by accident, and the cinematography by Sean Price Williams is both ugly and slick. But for all its energy (which eventually collapses like toddlers at nap time, without warning or preparation), Good Time can’t do much more than scold its characters for their lack of foresight and good judgment which, as denouement’s go, is a little underwhelming. We’ve known all of that since Scarface.