Josh and Benny Safdie have delivered another severe opus of desperation with Good Time, a crime film that fetishizes the gutter to much less humane effect than their last feature Heaven Knows What. Robert Pattinson stars as troublesome Constantine “Connie” Nikas, whose sway over his mentally handicapped brother Nick (also played by Benny Safdie) strays closer to control than doting protection. When a bank robbery that Connie forces Nick to participate in goes south, the film shuttles into Nick’s urgent haphazard overnight quest to gather the cash to bail Nick out of jail.
For Connie desperation and manipulation become their own cause and effect, the night’s rapid evolution of crime giving way to his more self-centered impulses. His hustler instincts allow him to slip away and get ahead with ease, but often at the expense of an innocent bystander. It’s largely people of color that suffer the greatest consequences for his criminality, and the Safdies smartly show how even a white petty criminal with not so well-meaning intentions benefits from an unjust system.
The Safdies’ attempts at gritty reality have previously come with a fair deal of punishment, having crafted rough sits that remain compelling in their intensity. Good Time however is a misfired attempt at that balance, each unfolding obstacles for Connie becoming more absurdly and frustratingly plotted against the Safdies’ aim for honesty. The director duo come gifted with a keen sense of inventiveness and mold-breaking ideas on structure, and with the ability to attract and distance the audience in equal measure to unique effect. It’s their structural originality and eye for humanity in the most dire circumstances that sets them apart. But with this effort, their greatest attributes are out of sync, making for a film that feels labored in every one of its attempts including as a star vehicle for the talented Robert Pattinson.
Much of Good Time is framed tight on Pattinson’s face to show every small tic and on-the-fly readjustment that Connie is forced to make. Rather than providing an immersion into the performance, it does a garish disservice to the physicality of the actor’s work. Pattinson is invigorated and doing body-breaking work despite he film only asking so much from him. Connie operates in a blind reactive state, allowing Pattinson to give an enervated performance but one that doesn’t extend beyond the anxiety. There are hints of the heights Pattinson could have reached had the Safdies had more curiosity about Connie’s interiority, but few.
The film’s descent into the criminal abyss is equally as flatly drawn as its characterization of Connie. It feels like a missed opportunity to create a contemporary tragedy with Connie’s disregard for others and perceived untouchability becoming his downfall, but the film moreso happens upon those traits in its antihero rather than exploring them. Similarly, the chance to examine the spiraling effect of crime begetting more crime until it’s disassociated from the original purpose is something the audience appears to be more aware of than the Safdies.
With only a fleeting sense of soul beneath all of the nerve-fraying intensity, Good Time eventually dulls the senses rather than seizing them. Though some sections like its finale are ingeniously staged or lit with an engaging color palate, the uneven framing of ghastly closeups deceives rather than embodies Connie’s experience. The film’s best asset for ratcheting up the tension is the titchy and brooding electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never, an amorphous soundscape that hums with the level of consequence that Connie tries to evade.
The virtuosic minds behind Good Time unfortunately don’t salvage it from its screenwriting shortsightedness or disparate elements. What might be a thrilling rush in pieces, lingers as an empty experience.