By Ray Pride
Narcotically propulsive, the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” shoulders on the armature of a 1970s New York City motion picture in style and energy and drops it directly into the present moment and your face. It’s an exemplar of the latter-day form of the “third-act movie,” like “Dunkirk,” or László Nemes’ “Son of Saul”: while bursting with energy, the characters are reacting to confinement, there are only shreds of backstory, the characterization is mostly in the form of action. Action is character. Energy is unstable. Chronic energy confined is a dangerous force, once released, unleashed on the streets of Queens. The dynamic opening begins an insistent motif of confinement, a gliding aerial shot of an urban view bristling with the city’s tall waterfront buildings, with mirrored faces that arrive at one window, one office and painful, extreme close-ups of a suffering, developmentally disabled man.
Nick (Benny Safdie) attempts to understand the questions of a psychologist, which only confuse and irritate him as the psychologist tries to decipher why Nick has gotten violent with his grandmother. His brother, Connie (Robert Pattinson), bursts in, taking him back out on the streets, and before you know it, into an ill-fated bank robbery. “Good Time” captures jangling blood rush, an ongoing yet instant-driven realization that all is amiss, and all rushing forward, and could, nay, shall cascade to catastrophe. Nick’s stumble and crash through a plate-glass door is essential to other weird doors opening onto the desperate flight of Connie and the film itself. Of the creators of “Heaven Knows What” and “Daddy Longlegs,” fellow filmmaker Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) puts it nicely, saying that “Good Time” “falls perfectly in the Safdie canon. It is distinctly Safdie—beautifully lost characters brought to us with Koch-era attitude and hubris.”
Since the picture’s premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival in May, the Safdie brothers, bearded Josh, thirty-three, clean-cut Benny, thirty-one, who plays Nick, have gotten more and more specific about meanings behind their propulsive, convulsive, burstingly political picture.
Race, and how your characters exploit and use others, largely a range of black figures, have distressed, even offended, some reviewers.
JOSH. We’re much more happy to let the film speak for itself. What’s interesting is that in Europe—obviously the American landscape is very fucked up right now. Clearly, our movie takes place in 2017. But in Europe, the conversation was very different. The conversation was more of looking at America from a bird’s-eye point of view. So when we did all the press out of Cannes, it was different. The only reason I started speaking about these things is that, again, because we’re getting asked the questions, I’m, y’know, we wrote the movie. So I know how I feel about it. I know what there is to get and what maybe misinterpret.
BENNY. I think there is a general difference between reflecting society and saying that you adhere to those same ideas. Just because you’re showing certain things that exist doesn’t mean you subscribe to the same point of view. How do you have a conversation about something without bringing up things that you will be uncomfortable with?
Last night at the Chicago preview, you said, “This is a movie about scumbags.” There’s my headline, I perked up.
JOSH. Yeah, listen, I’ve always been attracted to a specific, I mean, our growing up in a world where these characters were kind of around us. I think that Connie does a lot of despicable things in the movie, but he also, he’s heroic in the sense of how far is one willing to go and manipulate society in pursuit of a dream. You know what I mean? That is admirable to a large extent. But I do think he’s, in a weird way, I mean, there’s a huge, long lineage of the kind of beautiful scumbag. Like the guy who uses his looks to his advantage. That goes back, obviously, to someone like Manson, or Ted Bundy. Or Richard Ramirez. These were good-looking guys who knew how important appearances are. Obviously, Connie knows about appearances more than anyone in the movie.
BENNY. There is logic to what Connie is doing. It’s flawed, but you can follow the train of thought, the fact that he tries, he doesn’t feel that where Nick is, where his brother is, is the right place for him. He feels what’s better for him is to go out and experience and do something. But that doesn’t mean, go rob a bank! And then literally send him to jail, which is the last place that this guy needs to be.
JOSH. Nick wouldn’t have gone to jail if Nick understood what “race” was. I don’t think Nick understands race. I think that’s a testament to how fucked up society is, and how the older we get, the more ingrained it gets in us. Right now, any reading person opens up the newspaper, and all they think, is that it’s black versus white. Because that’s what is in the news right now. Granted, it’s a fucking story that needs to be told, because if you don’t talk about it, then it’s just like, well, this is just letting it go on. As you get older, and as you start to understand society, it’s like, especially in jail… Jail is the loudest place to understand the quote-unquote differences that we’re pitted against one another. But a kid, and someone like Nick, who’s developmentally disabled, doesn’t have that. That’s why in jail, he’s just going to turn on a TV and another white guy comes up and says, “this is theirs!” And then he’s like, I don’t like you, don’t talk to me. He doesn’t see that! All he cares about is television. I do think that that is a basic affront to conformity, in a weird way.
BENNY. It’s like saying, as a society, we are a post-racial, beautiful society. It’s not true. There is racism that exists!
JOSH. And there are people who take advantage of this situation, and there are people who do it from a place of hatred, and there’s a group of people who do it because they know they can take advantage of it. And get away with something. That’s Connie. Connie is the person who sees that landscape and says, Okay, I can get away with it if I put on a black mask, I can get away with it with the security guard, because he’s black and the two cops are white. So he’s looking at it from that point of view. Connie knows when the cops are stopping them. Connie knows, don’t worry. Two white guys walking down the street in Queens, don’t worry. Just remain calm. Let me do all the talking. Nick doesn’t know that! So Nick just takes off. That’s why they say, you in the black hoodie, turn around, he doesn’t, he takes off. If he’d just turned around, they’d be like sorry guys, this is whatever, go on your way.
BENNY. Nick is just afraid. Nick is just scared, he’s in a situation where he could get in trouble. In his head, things are magnified. Maybe when he’s talking to the psychiatrist in the beginning. It’s not like his grandmother actually told him, you’re never going to get to eat again, but he interpreted it that way. He interprets things in very different ways. It was important to show that character, for myself, I could understand where you read certain parts of agitation different and you internalize, even if it’s not in any way what anyone meant, but you take it and run with them and you cycle it through and it goes on a tape loop, and you can get stuck, and that getting stuck is what scares Nick sometimes.
“Good Time” is now playing and goes wide Friday, August 25.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.