Good Time opens on a brutal scene in which the mentally handicapped Nick (Benny Safdie, who also co-directs) free associates with a psychiatrist. It is a scene told entirely in tight closeups. Nick stares on at the therapist, at first emptily as he struggles to answer the questions in abstract ways. Then, his still blank face breaks into tears. It is a truly engaging scene that effectively draws you into the film.
In this scene, it is not immediately clear where Nick is or why he is there. All we have is the claustrophobic moment of intense and immediate insight into Nick’s repressed psyche.
Good Time is most comfortable in this framing: the uncomfortable closeup, often shot in a cinema verite style handheld.
Nick’s brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) is Nick’s confidant and, seemingly, his only friend. As such, he falls into the activity that Connie is involved in. Namely, armed robbery.
When Connie and Nick rob a bank—another fantastic scene played out mostly in silence—they traverse the city to evade the authorities. They are met with obstacle after obstacle, which culminates in Nick being apprehended and put in Rikers Island.
From here on out, Good Time is invested in Connie trying to get his brother free, by any means necessary.
The film is a narrative of failure, struggle, and unflinching perseverance. Everything that can go wrong for Connie does, and the problems stack up as he moves from place to place trying to accomplish his singular goal.
In this way, the story weaves itself down unexpected avenues which yield rich veins of black humor and bitter, gritty realism. There are moments in the film where a certain turn in the narrative is so refreshingly unpredictable that the beat itself becomes a source of dark humor.
The downside to this winding story is that it loses sight of the first character that the film introduces to us: Nick. As spellbinding as Pattinson’s performance is, one wonders how the film would be different if his character’s brother played a more central role. This question is seemingly unavoidable, given that Nick is the first character we are exposed to and sympathize with.
Without the brother remaining in the picture, the film loses the central relationship, which is set up well and then is promptly dropped.
We never really get to know who Connie is. Pattinson’s character is dead set on springing his brother free, but there is never any insight into who he is as an individual.
With no attachment to the character, the film lacks heart. It is not as if a film of this nature—cruel and cynically humorous—requires a fair amount of heart, but some emotional connection to Connie would amplify the weight of Good Time a great deal.
Once Nick leaves the fold, the film flattens into something that feels amorphous and rambling. We are taught to care about what happens to Nick, and then we are asked to shift these sympathies to a character who we only see as immoral. When Safdie is on screen the scenes are transcendent from the rest of the film, leaving the middle something completely different. Something lacking.
Good Time also fails to live up to any larger thematic potential. It is an exhausting, claustrophobic crime story, and that is about it. It is still an exhilarating ride through a debauched unseen world, but once you wash off the grit and grime that comes with the ride you realize that there isn’t much else of substance to glean.
The Safdies’ directorial presence, however, is apparent in the tight quarters approach, and this is a welcome sign. With some more attention to characters and theme, their auteur stamp could become something worth seeking out.
Good Time: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)