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The spirit of independent cinema is alive and well, but it’s also grown frustratingly familiar. Go to Sundance or SXSW, and you’ll find a bevy of meandering movies built on the existential despair of middle-aged white men, quotidian characters who are often despondent, divorced, or both. Their unrest is the crux of the movie.
But while brother directors Joshua and Ben Safdie (“Heaven Knows What”) find themselves trafficking this territory (their films are economical, efficient), the art itself stands out. Their narrative interests are singular; the stories they’re interested in relaying to the world are not common or, for that matter, comfortable.
The dynamic directing duo seems to bask in discomfort throughout their latest project, “Good Time,” the cinematic equivalent to a 100-minute walking heartache. This pulse-pounding begins by about minute 10, though, when brothers Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie) enter a bank. Both are wearing the kind of discolored, distorted latex masks only used during Halloween or a bank robbery. It is not October.
Connie and Nick approach the counter with confidence. They pass a note to the teller. She doesn’t waver. Instead, she promptly fills and returns the bag full of money. But it’s not enough for Connie, who insists that she go into the back — without alerting the police or her colleagues — and give them more. But more is never enough.
Cinema has conditioned us to these criminal scenarios. We understand the difference between a seamless operation (“The Sting,” the “Oceans” franchise) and one on the verge of crumbling (“Out of Sight”). The Safdie brothers, with the help of composer Daniel Lopatin’s foreboding, electronic score, are uninterested in the former. Connie and Nick are playing a losing game, and we know it.
Once the botched robbery unfolds, Connie finds himself scrambling for Nick’s bail money. This is where “Good Time” doesn’t merely change its tune, but finds it. Everything leading up to Nick’s incarceration was a smartly crafted prelude. What follows is the song. The melody is something like a modern take on “The Fugitive” in which Connie traverses Queens, ducking and hiding from those searching for him.
Stumbling around the borough, Connie is a confounding character, at once repulsive and endearing. Traditionally, his actions (theft, deceit, luring an underage girl, more theft) would not warrant our sympathy, and yet it’s hard to dislike Connie. His behavior is reprehensible, but co-screenwriters Joshua Safdie and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”) are careful to construct complexity.
This layered, detailed approach translates to all facets of “Good Time.” It’s a movie born into existence through true collaboration. It’s clear the Safdie brothers are beyond substantive storytellers; they’re astute delegators. The cinematography of Sean Price Williams (a crown jewel within the NYC indie filmmaking scene) is on full display. He captures the nightmarish eeriness of what the Safdies call “the tragic borough.” With the help of locations manager Samson Jacobson (a native who scouted locations for “Inside Llewyn Davis”), Queens is presented as the true underbelly of New York, replete with underdogs, oddballs, hustlers and blue-collar denizens.
These unique characters are the result of tireless work from casting director Jennifer Venditti (who aided Andrea Arnold in finding her cast for “American Honey”). It’s the specifics that matter here. These ancillary parts of the production add texture to the Safdies’ homegrown vision. It bursts at seams with authenticity because it is, in fact, authentic.
Of all the moving pieces in “Good Time,” Pattinson appears, on paper, as the biggest question mark. To put it mildly: his work in front of the camera has been inconsistent. Sometimes it appears he wants to perform, other times his inertness takes hold. If he contains some mystical on-off switch, the Safdie brothers have figured out how to keep the light burning. Pattinson delivers a manic, adrenalized performance in the vein of Robert DeNiro in “Mean Streets,” a film to which “Good Time” often pays homage.
Connie’s outbursts are deeply terrifying. His aggression is only matched by his ostensible devotion to Nick. Connie is doing everything that he’s doing — begging his uptown sugar-mama (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for money, retrieving a bottle of acid to turn a profit — for his brother. The two are inextricably linked. But the inseparability is not exactly by mutual design. Although the precise medical diagnosis is unclear, Nick contains some intellectual disability.
Connie sees himself as Nick’s caretaker; Nick tacitly accepts that he is the person being taken care of. “Good Time” refuses to simplify this relationship. In turn, the Safdie brothers do not make it easy for the audience. It doesn’t tell you how to feel, or what to think. It’s squarely anti-authoritative opinion. What’s unfurling before us cannot be viewed in black and white.
Is the moral compass malfunctioning, or is it just hazy? Is Connie more of a predator than a surrogate parent to Nick? If his intentions to get Nick out of jail aren’t pure, what does Connie want? The unanswerable questions continue throughout, as Connie becomes increasingly desperate. The opening bank robbery soon reveals itself as a masterful exercise in foreshadowing. There are no happy endings to be found here.
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