One of the most kinetic, propulsive, immersive, unsettling, yet irresistible films in years, Good Time, by directors Josh and Ben Safdie, is a worthy heir to the gritty 1970s New York films of Martin Scorsese. What Mean Streets and Taxi Driver did for 1970s Manhattan, Good Time does for Queens of the 2010s. Rarely do filmmakers capture and express their vision so well—one can imagine this film rattling around inside the Safdies’ heads their whole lives, given how full and lived-in it is.
Good Time starts out with a bang and becomes more intense as it goes on, with mayhem escalating and sleaziness steadily creeping into more and more of the action. The film throws us right into a broad daylight bank robbery in Manhattan, led by Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally disabled brother, Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie). Their plan is to get enough money to move out of the city and start a quiet life on a farm where the sensitive Nick can live in peace. The robbery goes off without a hitch, until a big chunk of their loot gets stained with a red dye pack. In the ensuing chaos after the dye pack explodes, Nick gets caught and sent to Rikers Island, leaving Connie to come up with $10,000 in bail money to free his vulnerable brother from the notorious jail complex.
Connie sets off throughout Manhattan and Queens, using his good looks and charm to manipulate everyone he meets to open their wallets, especially women. The character is something of a play on Pattinson’s heartthrob persona, as he effortlessly gets every woman he meets to do what he wants, always leaving them behind as soon as they’ve played their role in his machinations. Connie is, needless to say, aptly named.
Seemingly every other frame is bathed in sleazy, late-night fuzzy red lights, and the suggestive, menacing electronica score from Oneohtrix Point Never is a perfect aural complement to the visual sleaziness and on-screen desperation.
For such a taut, focused film, there are some truly jolting surprises, which shouldn’t be discussed in a review. Yet they seem entirely organic, given the kind of madcap night Connie is having, in which he moves fast and cons many people as he tries to make thousands of dollars appear to make Nick’s bail. A resourceful sociopath, Connie is smarter than almost everyone he encounters, but he isn’t smart enough to outrun the minor missteps that begin to pile up.
In their previous film, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies established a contemporary urban aesthetic through expert knowledge of setting and character, but that film had minimal plot. Both films rely heavily on actors who have similarly lived the life being portrayed onscreen, like Buddy Duress and the rapper Necro. The innumerable minor touches and choices the directors bring to their characters give both films a lived-in quality that most filmmakers can only dream of attaining.
While Heaven Knows What was more of a meandering character study of drug addicts as they tried to spange a daily existence, Good Time combines that tone with a riveting plot and a career-defining performance from one of Hollywood’s brightest leading men. An added treat is newcomer Taliah Webster, who steals every scene she’s in as a teenage girl who is equal parts wise beyond her years and oblivious. As she gets sucked into Connie’s web of chaos, her casual hedonism, (“I smoke weed, eat food, and stay up all night watching movies”) and smartphone addiction are note-perfect in their realism and a counterbalance to the violent mayhem.
Good Time is as good a rebuke as possible to those who have pronounced the death of cinema, proof that there is still plenty of wonder left in the art form.