Making a crime thriller set in contemporary New York is tricky these days for one principal reason: there isn’t that much crime there anymore. In the 44 years since Martin Scorsese released Mean Streets, the Concrete Jungle has cleaned up its act by pushing out the pimps, pushers, and pornographers and replacing them with overpriced restaurants and Marvel and Nickelodeon characters.
Face it, you really have to be looking for it if you want to come across a bad neighborhood in New York these days—what with the rapid infestation of gentrification and all—and it can even be a little unnerving for filmmakers how family-friendly the place has become (Gaspar Noé originally wanted to shoot Enter the Void there, but opted for Tokyo instead after discovering New York didn’t quite have the underbelly he was looking for). That said, the Safdie Brothers (a filmmaking duo consisting of siblings Joshua and Ben) have succeeded in making a crime thriller that’s stylish and palpable, albeit also one that sorely underwrites an intriguing plot element.
Good Time has a rather unexpected initial scene for a crime drama. It opens with the mentally handicapped Nick Nikas (played by Ben Safdie himself) in a therapy session. After his therapist asks him a few questions, the conversation is interrupted by Nick’s brother, Connie (Robert Pattinson), who argues with the therapist and then barges his brother out of the office. The next scene finds Nick accompanying Connie as he robs a bank, but the operation expectedly goes sour, and Nick gets arrested. Fearing that his brother won’t last long in prison, Connie finds himself racing against time over the course of a night to secure enough money to make bail.
Anyone that has seen any of the Safdie Brothers three previous narrative features (The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs, and Heaven Knows What) can vouch that the two have indelible craft as filmmakers. Coming into filmmaking at a young age thanks to the encouragement of their cinema-loving father, the two instantly made a distinct style that worked for shoestring-budgeted pictures, with a grace and attitude that was inherent to their New York upbringing.
Their 2014 film, Heaven Knows What—probably their most high-profile film at the time—was a harrowing character study around a teenage heroin addict in the Upper West Side, based on the real-life experiences of star Arielle Holmes. It turned out to be a rather impressive film, perhaps the most subversive commentary on drug addiction to come from American cinema in a decade, and it jump-started the acting career of the young Arielle Homes, who the brothers assisted in going to rehab.
Perhaps of more importance, though, was the movie caught the attention of actor Robert Pattinson, who sought out the movie after seeing a production still for it and promptly contacted the brothers about working with them. The Twilight star was certainly the biggest actor the brothers had ever worked with, and his preparation for the role turned out to be transformative, to say the least. The British actor grew a messy blond-dyed mop, a goatee, and even locked down a Queens accent for the role of Connie. Dressed in hoodies and sweatpants for most of the movie and displaying a fairly lanky posture, it’s a role bereft of the elegance the teen heartthrob has been associated with from his previous films (even in his more experimental selections). But Pattinson ultimately feels every bit a part of the Safdie Brothers’ vision, and Connie might even make for the most iconic-looking fictional criminal since Ryan Gosling’s unnamed protagonist from Drive.
Having a watchable protagonist is certainly pivotal for a movie like Good Time, as not only is he featured heavily but the tension doesn’t ease up often for us to get to know him much better. Throughout Connie’s action-packed night to save his brother, he finds himself jumping around his borough of Queens, from an attempt at breaking into a hospital to trying to locate a bottle of LSD. Along the way, he meets up with a whole slew of grimy characters (the Safdie Brothers appear to have gone all out in finding the city’s most chiseled residents), all to the tune of a really pulsing soundtrack. Experimental electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never scored the film, and it applies superbly to the rapid pace and modern aesthetic.
All of these factors would make one assume that Good Time is a film that’s particularly aimed at today’s youth, which there is little argument towards. Still, the Millennials that see this movie may be surprised at its realism. Wisely keeping the film’s body count at a minimum, the Safdies instead mine intensity by applying a familiar face to the proceedings. While most people living in New York City don’t live Connie’s lifestyle, chances are most of them know at least one person that does. Connie and the other low-lives in the film are never depicted as suave; they’re portrayed as fuck-ups that let drugs and ignorance dictate their life decisions. The stark editing and frequent use of dimly-lit neon amidst dark interiors often give Good Time the appearance of a rave party, perhaps inserting itself as a way for a party-indulger to question whether the film is subtly cautionary towards their lifestyle as well.
Despite all these great surface features, there’s at least one disappointment with Good Time: Connie’s relationship with his brother, Nick. Ben Safdie’s screen time as the character is limited, but his performance holds the screen with its authenticity. We don’t really have a concrete representation as to why Connie has a strong bond with Nick other than that they are brothers (or maybe the Safdies are just assuming the audience has all read Of Mice and Men), and a few more scenes showing the two of them together could have gone a long way. Perhaps the film would have even benefitted if it suggested that Nick’s disposition was in relation to Connie’s criminal lifestyle (or vice versa). The film’s final scene with Nick really had the potential to communicate something powerful, but instead, it felt unearned, particularly coming after a relatively abrupt climax.
Compared to other street-level crime films that Good Time is comparable with (i.e., Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher), it can come off as a little hollow. There isn’t much socio-political commentary in the film, and if the Safdies really developed their script, then we might have gotten more interesting parallels between the characters of Connie and his mentally-challenged brother, Nick. Still, it’s strong in quite a few crucial areas, and it’s a potent evolution of the brothers’ auteurism.
The two are already working on a new project with Martin Scorsese and Jonah Hill, so there’s little doubt that Good Time was exactly the picture they needed to break into the mainstream. There will be those that see Good Time as little more than an exercise, but in this case, it was an exercise with a substantial gain.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.