It makes sense that Josh and Ben Safdie, the precocious sibling filmmaking duo behind Heaven Knows What, used a friend’s prison journal and letters from the time he spent in Rikers Island as the partial inspiration for Good Time, their new crime thriller starring Robert Pattinson as a greaseball grifter on a one-night kamikaze mission through Queens to get the money to bail his mentally challenged brother out of prison. The film hums with authenticity and a kind of amused familiarity with the peculiar moral code (and singular vernacular) of the frequently incarcerated. It’s about the underworld, and not the organized part. And it feels real.
Cast by the same casting director behind last summer’s Juggalo Kerouac road movie, American Honey, Good Time exudes a similar dedication to depicting America’s underclass accurately. In Good Time, however, it’s the specific gutter scrapings of the tri-state area, specifically the male variety, defined by chaotic upbringings and the ability to disappear into sidewalk cracks and various crumbling welfare institutions. These are the kinds of guys you might hear slurring about “vokka” on a New York City bus. And where American Honey was languid and dreamy, Good Time is taut and claustrophobic — not unlike a 90-minute panic attack. Yet both movies, despite their overt bleakness, evoke the peculiar freedom of owning nothing, having no one, and being totally out of control.
Calling it a “crime thriller” might be a bit misleading, as that tends to imply criminal plots and planning, whereas Pattinson’s Connie Nikas is defined by a total lack thereof. He’s a desperate improviser, someone who can’t think big picture, but can connive and wheedle and has the sociopathic confidence to try to grift his way out of anything. In the first scene we meet his challenged brother, Nick Nikas, played disturbingly convincingly by non-mentally challenged co-director Ben Safdie. Connie takes Nick on as an accomplice to a criminal venture only for Nick to wind up in Rikers, leaving Connie to spend the rest of the movie trying to make the money to bail him out.
Connie’s night-long odyssey begins with his sometime girlfriend (or possibly just one of his marks), Corey, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may also be a bit challenged and still lives with her mom. It’s a fresh new ghetto twist on the sugar mom, dating a woman old enough to be your mom so you can squeeze her for the money she begs from her mom. Leigh can play a disturbed headcase with the best of them, but you probably already knew that from watching virtually any of her other movies. More surprising is the fact that Twilight‘s R-Pattz can play a grimy, goateed grifter well enough to anchor the entire movie. And I always rolled my eyes a little at his rave reviews for Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. This time around his performance goes a lot further than just not being sparkly vampire, I promise.
It probably helped Leigh and Pattinson to be surrounded by first-time actors who were clearly plucked from the kinds of haunts Good Time purports to depict (and if it didn’t help, it’s certainly evidence for their success, that they didn’t end up looking totally out of place). Just like Sasha Lane from American Honey deserves the assist on what’s by far Shia Labeouf’s most convincing performance, Good Time‘s Benny Duress similarly elevates Pattinson. It’s probably easier to know when you’re bullshitting when you’re staring at the genuine article. And my God, is Duress magnificent. Just when you think Good Time is going to be a somewhat arthouse-conventional tragic brother crime tale, Duress comes along and steals the entire movie, with a Scooby-Doo subplot involving an abandoned amusement park and a Sprite bottle full of blotter acid. He adds desperately needed comic relief to a story that’s otherwise in danger of becoming painfully anxiety inducing, and when he tells Connie, “I’m the one, I’m fuckin real,” he could be describing his own function in the movie. It was Duress’s own prison journals that inspired the Safdies, after meeting him while making Heaven Knows What, which Duress starred in while officially a fugitive.
Trivia aside, Good Time accurately homes in on “I’m for real, I don’t even give a shit” as the defining mantra of the quasi-institutionalized American underclass, for whom not giving a shit is the highest moral aspiration, and being accused of giving a shit the gravest insult. It was a refrain I heard over and over at The Gathering Of The Juggalos. Likewise, a dysfunctional upbringing and chaotic family life has bred in Connie a peculiar attachment to cartoonish ideas of clan and masculinity, where “taking care” of his brother is his only true moral center, even if his ideas of what taking care of him actually means in practice (pulling him out of a psychiatric evaluation so he doesn’t have to answer some egghead’s intrusive questions, for instance) are absurdly distorted, and his attempts to do so entirely self defeating. It reminded me a lot of Juggalos chanting “FAM UH LEE!” in between singalong paeans to not giving a fuck.
Not that you need to have had that experience in order to fully appreciate Good Time, which is at least as much a display of skillful filmmaking as it is astute sociology. Aside from the claustrophobic cinematography, Daniel Lopatin’s score is about as effective as I’ve heard from just about any recent movie, let alone an indie. Good Time is also unique in that it’s plot driven, eventful in a way that doesn’t cheat, brilliant at putting us in the shoes of someone with nothing to lose who truly doesn’t give a shit. It’s flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants bleakness is like Dog Day Afternoon for a new, lost generation.