It’s difficult to know where to begin expressing my feelings about Good Time, the latest film from the Safdie brothers and easily their highest-profile movie to date. It’s a colourful, mesmerising haze of a picture, a deceptively simple, tense blur soaked in saturated neon glow that unravels and reveals itself in digestion. This is the kind of work that seems tailor-made to suit my taste and makes me immediately regret having missed out on everything the directors have done prior. I love this film.
The cornerstone of Good Time is a tremendous performance by Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a sly New Yorker hell-bent on rescuing his mentally disabled brother, Nick (played by co-director Benny Safdie), after Nick winds up in the notorious Rikers Island prison. Pattinson already impressed earlier this year with his turn in the brilliant The Lost City of Z, but here he blurs the line between acting and metamorphosis, not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis. Such a comparison invites the risk of overstatement, but I can’t emphasise enough the sheer perfection of Pattinson as Connie. He embodies Connie’s every tick and every thought, assembled with such subtlety and seedy grace as to make him feel alive, selling without a second thought that he existed prior to the events on screen and that that existence informs every move he makes. My relationship with Connie as a viewer wasn’t as a character or a role, but as a genuine, breathing human being existing on the screen before me, a performance so defining that the Connie as written in the script and as embodied on screen can’t be separated from one another. That, to me, is the pinnacle of cinematic acting.
Good Time is at first glance a high-octane thriller but is at its core an ominously subversive character study, Connie himself being one of the most fascinating film characters I’ve seen in a long while. He’s a conman at his core, deceit is his bread and butter, yet he approaches every lie with such apparently fervent belief that the truth seems to get lost in each moment. As time presses on and the stakes are raised, Connie’s layers are peeled back, transiting from somewhat sympathetic to at best conflicted and at worst utterly detestable. It’s a unique character arc in that Connie doesn’t change one bit from one end of the film to the other, only the audience’s perspective on who he is.
The film’s thrills are nothing to scoff at either, even if they took a backseat to the characters for me. The Safdie brothers play up the tension well, making sure every scene communicates its time constraints and limitations while reinforcing the immediacy of the task at hand. Every wrench thrown in the gears is a shock, and every solution (or lackthereof) is believably spur-of-the-moment. Claustrophobic cinematography ramps it up even more, liberally using close-ups and extreme close-ups in a manner that would make the team behind Les Misérables salivate uncontrollably while also demonstrating to them how it’s properly done. Our forced gaze into the characters eyes is endlessly uncomfortable, and that requisite closeness demands us to come to grips with the aphotic natures of the personalities before us rather than sit back and enjoy the ride. The tense photography is propped up by wonderfully vibrant neo-80s style, monochromatically lit scenes differentiating from one another through contrast in their mildly gaudy luminosity. A gritty score composed of swells of unrefined synthesisers and distorted guitar strings à la Only God Forgives punctuates each intentionally grainy frame.
It’s eye and ear candy, all of it, and I can point to each element and tell you why I love it. I love the directors’ quiet rebellion against expectations and cinematic procedure. I love the cast of intriguing supporting characters, including a deluded woman-child that Connie has seduced (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a foolhardy and brash escaped convict (Buddy Duress), and Benny Safdie’s immense performance as Nick Nikas, which hopefully won’t be too overshadowed by Pattinson come awards season. I love the lack of unnatural expository dialogue and how elements from the characters’ pasts are inferred rather than explained. I love the intense colour and harsh music, because it stimulates my senses in such an overpowering and forceful way. I love how everything comes apart and how it’s tied up in the end, of which I can’t say more here. Good Time is an unexpected gem, a grim delight that needs to be experienced rather than described. If you’re on your way to the cinema and are fortunate enough to have a screening of Good Time available, make it your next viewing no matter what other options there are.