Runs in the Family

Amy Taubin on the Safdie brothers’ Good Time

Bennie and Josh Safdie, Good Time, 2017, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes. Nick Nikas and Connie Nikas (Bennie Safdie and Robert Pattinson).

IN THE SAFDIE BROTHERS’ GOOD TIME, Robert Pattinson does an end run around the cops and anyone and anything that comes between him and the nowhere to which he’s headed. He’s literally on the run almost every time we see him, and when he’s not running, his adrenaline is jacked up so high it looks as if he is. As Connie Nikas, a petty criminal with a long rap sheet on a mission to save Nick (Benny Safdie), his younger and in every way slower brother, from the system, Pattinson jettisons almost everything that made him a romantic leading man—good manners, cultured diction, languorous grace, and, most of all, middle-class impulse control—to find his way inside a feral, low-life megalomaniac with eyes like headlights, fixed unblinkingly in their sockets and devoid of emotion. It’s the primary reason actors enjoy playing villains—or the kind of antihero that Connie is: Pattinson seems to have checked his superego before each shot and let his id wreak havoc.

Pattinson’s Connie is on a bad trip, and so is the movie—except that it’s so kinetic and exciting to look at and listen to that you just go with it without worrying that you’ll be wrecked in the morning. Its saving grace—besides the riotous beauty of Sean Price Williams’s 35-mm widescreen neon-streaked mega-moving images and a propulsive techno score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin), made more immersive by Benny Safdie and Evan Mangiamele’s sound design—is the Safdies’ commitment to showing us the people and places of a marginal New York. Good Time is set almost entirely in a single twenty-four-hour period, and its accelerating dive-toward-doom trajectory (screenplay by Josh Safdie and Ronnie Bronstein; editing by Benny and Ronnie; direction by both Safdies) resembles nothing so much as Martin Scorsese’s 1985 After Hours, albeit Connie is a lot closer to Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1972) than to Griffin Dunne’s uptown nebbish terrorized by cool and/or crazy Tribeca women. The Safdies know their New York pulp movies, so it’s no wonder that Good Time is being compared to early Scorsese and to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). To those I’d add Nick Gomez’s unforgettable 1992 no-budget indie debut, Laws of Gravity, which has Peter Greene and Adam Trese as wannabe felons every bit as hapless as Connie and handheld cinematography by Jean de Segonzac that is as vertiginous as Williams’s.

Good Time opens with a close-up of Nick, who is mentally challenged, having a bad time in a city-funded psychiatrist’s office. When the shrink questions him about having thrown a heavy metal object at his grandmother, tears well up in Nick’s eyes and roll down his broad, fleshy face. It’s an astonishing sight, in part because the tears seem to catch both the character and the actor by surprise. While we are wondering what to make of this, Connie bursts into the room, absconds with his brother, and the next thing we know they are donning ski masks and robbing a bank. Connie has a vague John Steinbeck–like dream of saving Nick by taking him to live on a farm. For that he needs money, hence the bank robbery. But if Connie knows nothing about robbing banks, he also hasn’t a clue who his brother is or what he needs. This is literally proved midway through the film when he steals a man, wrapped head-to-toe in bandages, from a hospital room. He thinks it’s Nick, who is indeed in the hospital, where he was taken after he plunged through a glass door at the end of the chase that followed the bank robbery and was beaten up at Rikers. But the guy in the wheelchair who Connie hustles onto an Access-a-Ride isn’t his brother.

Connie takes refuge with the bandaged man in the house of a trusting elderly woman who lives with her granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster, whose mix of curiosity and nonchalance is one of the movie’s joys). After peroxiding his hair piss yellow as a disguise and putting a few unenthusiastic moves on Crystal, Connie somehow discovers (I forget exactly how or when—that’s how much frenetic activity there is in the movie) that the man he stole is not his brother but Ray (Buddy Duress), a jailbird even more delusional than he is. Ray has stashed a bottle of liquid LSD, which he claims is worth a fortune to his drug-dealer boss, in an amusement park that’s closed for the winter. Leaving Crystal as a lookout, Connie and Ray break in; even before they find the acid things get hallucinatory, what with the rides and the lights. When the cops arrive, they mistake the security guard (Barkhad Abdi, the quietest of scene stealers) and Crystal for the vandals—why not? they’re black—leaving Connie and Ray free to hurl themselves even further into the abyss.

This is the Safdies’ biggest movie, and while the budget allowed them to work with the magnetic and gifted Pattinson and to shoot in an array of complex locations, they also held fast to their guerrilla filmmaking method. The outer boroughs of New York have rarely been shown as realistically and phantasmagorically within a single movie. It is the city of millions of people who live on the economic margins and try to stay sane and safe while keeping out of the way of the desperate in their midst—people like Connie, whose nightmares twist his perceptions and make him incapable of having a good time or gifting his brother with a better life. Nevertheless, he’s more to be pitied than despised. The Safdies give the last word to Iggy Pop, in a song he wrote for Good Time. That word is “love.”

Good Time is now playing in select theaters.