Film & Television

The art of the hustle in the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Good Time’

By Harry Windsor
The lo-fi New Yorkers take on a Robert Pattinson–starring genre thriller

Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie have made a series of lo-fi features and shorts limning the street life of New York City and some of its most marginalised characters: drifters and junkies and single dads with frayed nerves and desultory habits. Their previous feature, 2014’s dirge-like heroin love story Heaven Knows What, marked the first on which the pair worked with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Queen of Earth), and the result was more obviously crafted, though still uninterested in a traditional escalating narrative. Instead, it captured the hand-to-mouth monotony of sidewalk life with endless variations on similar scenes of street barter and breakdown.

Their latest feature, Good Time (now showing), is also about the art of the hustle, but it offers thrills in addition to texture, and the whole thing is blanketed by a pulse-quickening score from electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never that gives it a hurtling immediacy. Robert Pattinson plays Connie, a slick talker with a mentally handicapped brother, Nick, played by Benny Safdie. After Connie extracts his brother from a meeting with a benign social worker – “Shame on you,” each shouts at the other – he enlists him in a bank robbery, which inevitably goes south. Nick is arrested after panicking on the job and winds up in hospital following a holding-cell beating, while Connie frantically races around town trying to raise the money to bail him out. His first port of call is sometime girlfriend Corey, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, a hysteric who’s in possession of a credit card paid for by the long-suffering mother with whom she still lives.

Corey’s mother is one of the few parental figures who aren’t absent. Connie and Nick have been raised by their elderly Greek grandmother, glimpsed only once, inveighing on the nightly news against Connie’s toxic influence over his brother. When Connie breaks his brother out of hospital, he talks his way into the home of a fellow bus-rider, an African émigré living alone with her teenage granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster). Connie watches Cops with the girl, a fellow orphan, and tuts disapprovingly when the blues tackle a perp to the ground: “I don’t want to see them justify this shit.” The confident entitlement with which he manipulates the moony-eyed teen – “Don’t be confused, it’s just gonna make it worse for me” – gives this section an amusing surrealism, reinforced by the filmmakers’ shuffling of camera speeds and culminating in a comic reversal for the ages.

When the film was released stateside earlier this year, the New York Times’ AO Scott singled out “an ugly racial dimension in Connie’s behaviour”, right down to the rubbery blackface masks worn by the brothers during the heist. Connie takes Crystal along to an amusement park in the middle of the night in order to retrieve a bottle of valuable acid, and the girl finds herself in the back of a patrol car after she’s picked up loitering outside. Connie, looking on, is free to go, partly because he’s wearing the uniform of the black nightwatchman (Captain Philips’ Barkhad Abdi) he’s already beaten unconscious. But it’s Pattinson’s whiteness, the film suggests, that is the real disguise: a cloak of invisibility that perennially grants him the benefit of the doubt.

Pattinson has always seemed to me an actor with more taste than talent, making hay while he can by working with directors such as David Cronenberg and Claire Denis, but invariably more committed than convincing. But he’s a revelation here, funny and frantic and displaying none of the “I’M ACTING!” histrionics of, say, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, another study in sunken cheeks and bladed cheekbones. Even better is Benny Safdie, who looks like he’s doubled his body weight and suffered through a scarifying peel in preparation for the role, his face red and blotchy and swollen. Even though he’s out of the picture for much of the film, the wrenching scenes in which Nick tries to communicate, to understand and be understood, are the ones that give the film its emotional – and not just sensory – power.

With swooping helicopter shots, a synth-heavy soundscape and faces illuminated by the glow from televisions and neon signs, Good Time has a cool reminiscent of early Michael Mann that doesn’t extend to any of its characters. This is the New York of bail bonds and run-down theme parks, of vending-machine coffee and leather couches. This is the world preyed on by Trump University. Finally escaping from it means the breaking of family, with each brother institutionalised in an ending that’s presented as hopeful. The state, in this relic of the immediate, pre-election past, is a refuge, rather than a continuum.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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