Huffing and Puffing
by Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, U.S., A24
A gutter picaresque masquerading as a chaotic crime thriller, Josh and Benny Safdie’s well-observed but wearying fifth feature, Good Time, proceeds from a particularly fraught fraternal dynamic, one that’s deftly established in the film’s opening scene. High up in a skyscraper somewhere on Manhattan’s west side, the mentally handicapped Nick (played by codirector Benny Safdie with a moving stoicism) sits in the office of a kindly social worker, the imposing patient still wearing his winter jacket, its yellow collar appearing, in the sustained close-up of his face that unfolds, like a life preserver around his neck—evidently his last line of defense against the questions to follow. From Nick’s short but direct responses during a word-association game, and the tears that are soon streaming down his face, we learn that he’s been brought to this place in the wake of a violent scene involving the grandmother who takes care of him. The therapist seems to be making some headway—that is, until Nick’s keyed-up brother, Connie (Robert Pattinson), busts in and drags Nick from the session, creating an almost gleeful commotion as he carries out what he sees as his brotherly duty: to rescue Nick not only from institutional captivity but also from the third rail of introspection.
At this point, the Safdies are no strangers to the subject of familial irresponsibility. In their remarkable early feature Daddy Longlegs (2009), a faintly whimsical but far from flippant takes on neglectful parenting, the scatterbrained projectionist Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) takes on temporary custody of his two sons and in no time proves himself spectacularly unfit as a guardian. Both more realistic and more flamboyantly frenzied than its lyrical predecessor—and every bit as impressive—Heaven Knows What (2014) turned the camera on an even more marginal Manhattan existence, portraying the feedback loop of codependency and self-destruction with a makeshift family of down-and-out heroin addicts. Relying heavily on a cascading electronic score by Daniel Lopatin (better known as Ohneotrix Point Never) that from the get-go serves as a sort of foreboding commentary on the unfolding action, Good Time makes a point of extending the domestic-dysfunction theme, proposing a form of filial devotion that is total but nonetheless tainted by self-interest. Almost immediately after the film’s opening scene, Connie is hauling Nick along with him on an ill-conceived robbery of a bank branch in Flushing, Queens. “Do you think I could have done that without you standing next to me, being strong?” Connie reassures Nick right after the job—and just before a paint bomb goes off in their bag of stolen cash, filling the cab they’re in with red vapor and sending it off the road. The accident, an eye-poppingly entropic moment staged by the Safdies and captured as if on the fly by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, sends the two thieves scrambling onto the street and into a Domino’s bathroom to clean themselves off. Not long thereafter, Nick gets nabbed by the cops and hauled off to Rikers Island.
The botched heist proves to be only the beginning of a string of misadventures, as Connie embarks on an overnight odyssey crisscrossing the borough of Queens, setting about the quixotic task of trying to break his brother out of prison. Meanwhile, the soundtrack continues to blare and the pace remains unrelenting, suggesting that the Safdies conceived the film as a continuously suspenseful experience. Good Time never quite works as a thriller, though, mostly on account of Connie’s sheer ineptness as a criminal, which allows for little question about his ability, at the end of the day, to evade the authorities. Even after factoring in the money stolen from the bank, Connie finds he’s still $10,000 short on bail, so he drags his dim girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a glorified cameo) to the bail bondsman to swipe her mother’s credit card—which is (of course) declined. Upon finding out Nick has been transferred to an Elmhurst hospital after taking a severe beating at Rikers, Connie makes a beeline to his brother’s bedside, and subsequently manages to drag him off despite police protection—only to discover later that the patient he’s liberated is not, in fact, his brother, but rather a guy named Ray (Heaven Knows What’s Buddy Duress), an ex-con whose impulse control is every bit as bad as Connie’s. At this point, the possibility of Connie reuniting with Nick—who remains off-screen for much of the movie—begins to seem even more remote.
As the night drags on, and the film more and more resembles a bad-trip spin on After Hours, the atmosphere grows ever more deliriously surreal: Connie talks his way into the safe haven of a home in Rego Park, eventually settling in to watch Cops and the local news (and, in a nice New York touch, flipping past a Cellino & Barnes commercial) with a teenage girl named Crystal (Taliah Webster). The two are soon piling into a car with Ray to go on a treasure hunt of sorts for a Sprite bottle full of acid hidden inside an amusement-park ride called “Romance Apocalypse.” What dynamism the movie retains during this frantic longueur can largely be attributed to the combustible performances of Duress and, in particular, Pattinson, who is much more smoothly effusive than in recent films like David Michôd’s The Rover, Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, in which recessiveness and caution were, in different ways, the dominant notes struck by the actor. Pattinson’s Connie is a con man at heart—resourceful in a highly improvisatory fashion, seeming to relish the performative combination of genuine charm and off-his-ass lying required to achieve some of his shorter-term goals, such as winning the trust of the cop on duty at the hospital, or gaining admittance to the home of a total stranger in the middle of the night. It is likely his prior success at blustering his way through such situations that leads him to overestimate his ability to pull off full-blown schemes like heists and rescue missions—though his recklessness, like his evidently fierce devotion to his brother, is also certainly rooted in a painful family history only teasingly hinted at.
As the Safdies have gradually transitioned to a higher-fi way of working—going from the scrappy, topsy-turvy 16mm of The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and Daddy Longlegs to the fixed HD setups of Heaven Knows What to the name actors and fluorescent tonalities of Good Time—they seem to have simultaneously placed a heavier emphasis on the scuzziness of their subject matter. In the process, their vision of a polarized and polarizing New York seems to have crystallized in a rather extraordinary way: to the Safdies, the city is at once a purgatory and a wonderland, a crucible that forges both deep grievance and limitless compassion, abounding with urgent stories nowhere so much as on its outermost margins. But Good Time—with its illicit behavior, its misguided characters, and its aggressively digressive storytelling—also too often winds up playing like a comedy of errors rather than a tale of true desperation. Its harnessing of a freewheeling energy not often seen in American cinema since the 1970s is undeniably impressive. But for the first time, the Safdies seem to have sold their characters a bit short, ultimately letting the sheer wildness of their exploits eclipse what drove them to such extremes in the first place.