Some films set in New York City showcase the glittery post-Guliani tourist pomp and circumstance we have grown accustomed to in stories within the legendary metropolis. While I love glitzy sweeping shots of skyscrapers, glamorous high end shops and restaurants, and gorgeous upscale abodes of the city's elite, I also relish a look at the grit, grime, and true inhabitants in their everyday urban surroundings. In other words, I also like to see where I might exist within such the fabled locale, and it ain't at the top of the Chrysler building. In Benny and Josh Safdie's GOOD TIME, NYC's street level realness is the backdrop for their ambitious man-on-the-run tale.
The story begins with twenty-something Nick Nikas as he is taking part in some sort of therapy session with a well-meaning professional. As Nick struggles to answer the therapist's seemingly innocuous questions, it becomes immediately apparent that he has some sort of mental disability. Paired with the fact that he is somewhat intimidating physically, this first scene seems to infer that Nick may snap at any moment as he is reduced to quiet tears during the routine session. Surprisingly, however, it is the loud and sudden intrusion by his brother Constantine "Connie" Nikas and not the brooding patient who breaks the sense of impending doom. Much to the chagrin of the counselor who is obviously familiar with their family dynamics, Connie is there to free his brother from the institution telling him that he doesn't belong there. After some hesitation, Nick follows his brother back out into the cruel world and straight into his brother's hi jinks. The immediate next scene is of the brothers robbing a bank with Connie as the brains and Nick the unwitting brawn of the operation. Though they are at first successful, Nick is eventually apprehended which sends Connie on a mission to once again free his brother by any means necessary resulting in an on-the-lam wild goose chase of semi-epic proportions.
The Safdie brothers have done a great job crafting a unique crime story in the context of family drama and questionable loyalty. Connie knows that he screwed up and definitely doesn't want his simple brother taking the fall for him, yet he continuously digs himself deeper and deeper in his criminal hole as he desperately tries to find a way out of it. It's the kind of movie where you root for the bad guy right up to the point that you realize, wait, this person really is a scumbag and shouldn't get away with this. As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that Connie is a master manipulator who twists every impossible situation in his favor with little regard for the damage he leaves in his wake.
Robert Pattinson is incredible in the lead role as the no good delinquent. He displays a perfect combination of crazy plus cleverness that is frightening and intriguing at the same time. When faced with various scenarios, he alternately turns on the charm and malice to get to the next stage of the quandary he's landed himself in, and Pattinson never misses a beat with a completely compelling performance that makes you want to follow this madman to the very end.
Appearing in front of the camera while co-helming the film as well, Benny Safdie dazzles as the troubled Nick. Safdie achieves a quiet intensity that is revealed early on to be entirely innocent. Just when you think there may be something sinister at hand, it becomes clear that the there are in fact no wheels turning in Nick's mind, and Safdie's subtle yet potent performance makes this fact a revelation instead of a given.
A crew of supporting players- including Jennifer Jason Leigh as a wonderfully unhinged friend- provide terrific variety throughout Connie's various encounters while on the run. Though each player holds his or her own against Connie's unique brand of crazy desperation, they ultimately serve to aptly clarify the lengths Connie will go to skew things to his advantage. An unmistakable ode to the city of New York, the Safdies also utilize the city's underbelly as a sort of character itself. Showcasing seedier elements and outlaws juxtaposed with the innocent everyday people Connie meets and subjugates during his plight brilliantly illustrates his disconnect between right and wrong.
Though I was mostly enthralled throughout, there are definitely a few moments when it feels like GOOD TIME doesn't know what kind of film it wants to be. While it is certainly a nod to 70's/80's NYC street dramas, it also features an elaborate Tarantino-esque flashback as well as a few lighter moments that- while enjoyable- don't quite fit the overall ominous tone. And speaking of tone, the Safdies also play with sound design and a piercing score by Daniel Lopatin to much effect. While I dug much of Lopatin's original music (that seems to harken back to Italian crime dramas and suspense horror of the early 80's), some moments of "deconstructed" composition made me uneasy. Though I'm sure this was intentional on the part of the directing duo, the abrasive music as well as borderline unbearable sound design at times removed me from the story forcing me to reconnect when the auditory assault was over. While this method didn't work for me entirely, I can appreciate the effort to manipulate an audience with sounds as well as sights, and I imagine there are cinephiles that will eat up such devices.
All in all, GOOD TIME is a fascinating day in the life of a ne're do well and his heist gone wrong with a cast of colorful characters in a street level cityscape. Go for Pattinson's captivating performance and stay for the surprising morality tale.
aka Annette Kellerman