Ben and Joshua Safdie were about due for a breakout hit and it looks like they have one on their hands, with their indie heist gone wrong picture, Good Time. Very much students of seventies cinema, the brothers’ 2010 film Daddy Longlegs – a tale of a freewheeling father who is more interested in being his children’s best friend than their father – owed a great debt to John Cassavetes.
This is a film that needs just enough plot to move in a forward direction and that’s all.
But their 2014 film, Heaven Knows What, showed real signs of the pair forging their own path, even whilst still wearing this seventies influence on their sleeves – it’s somewhat reminiscent of films such as Panic in Needle Park. Perhaps the most obvious diversion from a somewhat restrained seventies aesthetic in Heaven Knows What was the use of Isao Tomita’s electronic interpretations of Debussy. It was a highly unusual choice and added to that a film a real otherworldliness and intensity. It’s exactly the kind of daring choice that makes great American independent so frequently fresh and exciting.
With their latest, Good Time, the Safdie brothers have taken a similar route for the score, but this time the music is newly composed for the film by Brooklyn based Warp artist Oneohtrix Point Never. The score is an intense mix of snarling and throbbing synths that seems to almost threaten to consume the movie and its characters. But unlike Heaven Knows What, in which the somewhat similar score was occasionally a little hit and miss, the Safdie brothers have an exquisitely good grasp on what they are doing in Good Time and how far they can push things.
Good Time is the story of a heist gone wrong, but the plot is incredibly thin and not what is really of interest for the Safdies. This is a film that needs just enough plot to move in a forward direction and that’s all. The film opens with a character with leaning disabilities named Nick (Ben Safdie), but following a bungled heist instigated by his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) the film shifts away from Nick and towards his brother.
There is a highly effective restlessness to Pattinson as Connie that keeps you on edge at all times and makes for an incredibly tense experience.
Connie is a desperate man, trying hard to get the money together for a new life and to take care of his brother, but much like the father in Daddy Longlegs, he’s actually pretty terrible at this last part. But not for want of trying. What makes Safdie characters so incredibly compelling is often their flaws and the fact that in spite of these flaws they are not simply bad people. There’s a compassion and humanity in representing characters in this way and it comes through incredibly well in Good Time. Even when Connie does things that we may consider to be wrong, you still find yourself willing him along, as his successes feel satisfying even when they don’t feel right. It’s the kind of character – and almost the kind of performance – that made seventies crime dramas such as Dog Day Afternoon or Straight Time – of which this is somewhat reminiscent – so incredibly compelling.
There is a highly effective restlessness to Pattinson as Connie that keeps you on edge at all times and makes for an incredibly tense experience. He’s resourceful in a highly remarkable way, but at the same time frequently makes dumb choices. But it’s his inventiveness when presented with a difficult situation that marks him out as character that isn’t just a fool. And his desperation to help his brother, no matter how ill-founded, adds real heart and emotion to the movie.
Pattinson is better than ever before in Good Time too, eyes constantly darting and a helpless desperation always creeping through the grim determination he displays to the world. A scene in which we see him try to negotiate with his hysterical girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a no-nonsense bail bondsman part way through the film, for instance, really reveals the acting craft that Pattinson has at his disposal. His breathing, physical movement – knowing exactly how quickly to turn and when – and the way in which he uses eye contact is all working together to effectively convince us that his character’s emotional responses and desperation are real.
The Safdie brothers are on top form too, with their previous films now feeling like something of a dry run for this, the main event. A scuzzy blending of an American Independent sensibility and an unusual approach to genre material, mixed with a straight up crime drama narrative, Good Time is a punchy, urgent film that makes for a highly visceral experience.