GOOD TIME (2017)

One-line review: A man on the run for “a” life.

This film is the Safdie Brothers’ first outing with a big star and paved the way for convincing Adam Sandler to do their dream project. But interestingly, in this case, the global sensation Robert Pattinson sought them out after seeing their previous movie’s trailer. Pattinson told the brothers he just wanted to work with them, even if it was as a caterer on their sets. Buoyed by this faith, Josh Safdie, and frequent writing partner Ronald Bronstein (excellent as the lead in Safdies’ earlier film, Daddy Longlegs) wrote the crackling script, and the rest is history (including a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes). 

The film’s title refers to prisoners getting an early release for good behavior: good time, although they return to prison if they misuse this time. In the film, Connie (Pattinson) is out early and determined to make a good life with his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Benny Safdie). They come from a broken home and have only each other. Of course, Connie can make big money only with a bank robbery. But it goes terribly wrong, causing Connie’s already precarious world to collapse like a house of cards. Nick is caught by the cops and sent to Rikers Island. Connie knows Nick will not survive there, and rightfully so, because Nick gets into a fight immediately and is badly hurt. The rest of the movie is about his losing hustle to get Nick’s bail money. He first tries to get his much older and empty-headed girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pay up, but her card won’t work. Then Connie tries to abduct Nick from the hospital, which goes hilariously wrong, putting him in the company of another good-time convict Ray (Buddy Duress), and teenager, Crystal (Taliah Lennice). Ray tells Connie that he and his buddies hid drug money and acid in an amusement park because the cops suddenly busted them. Connie decides to drive there for the bail money, but the fearless guard Dash (Barkhad Abdi) stops them. They manage to escape, but the cops are hot on their heels. The film ends with a shot of Nick with his loving psychiatrist, who tells him that both brothers are exactly where they need to be. 

Now imagine this tight plot playing out in fast-forward at double speed, trying to keep up with  OPN’s pulsating score, and you’re in for a hundred mph car ride through busy roads that yet grounds to a perfect stop at your destination. And who knew you needed a ride like that to be invigorated? Benny Safdie remembers his professor commenting on his storytelling style as all over the place yet effective since it eventually gets from point A to B coherently. The movie works because its feverish energy is authentic; just watch the Safdies talk all over each other in interviews. 

The film works so well because, despite all the craziness, at its core, it is a love story between two brothers who are dealt a bad hand in life. As the end credits roll, with Iggy Pop’s narrative “Pure and the damned” in the background and Nick slowly but surely joins others in his rehabilitation school, you can’t help but wish you could see the day the brothers will be reunited. Despite the many laugh-aloud scenes and high-stakes action, the scenes you return to are the all too brief ones between the brothers. Such is the emotional pull of their bond. Benny Safdie discusses that he and older brother Josh have complementary skills; Benny has an unforgiving stance on people, while Josh is the romantic one, so you have flawed and human characters. 

For example, the film’s lead, Connie, although selfish and mean, is not a hardened criminal. Connie is a victim of his circumstances, determined to make a better life with his brother. A small but powerful scene where Connie gives a patient a drink of water despite his high nerves (we expect him to strangle her like in other movies) is a brilliant insight into his real nature. Even the mentally challenged and straight-shooting Nick knows when to keep quiet because his brother will get into trouble. Or the other thug, Ray, is a total fuck up but has loyal friends. Young and wasted Crystal may be promiscuous but won’t rat on anyone, including Connie, although he doesn’t deserve her kindness. But that’s just who she is. The Safdies don’t avoid portraying unlikable characters, but no one is inherently bad.

But eventually, what makes the film unforgettable is the casting and performances. Robert Pattinson disappears into his hoodie; he was so unrecognizable that they could shoot on the NYC streets without crowds. The fact that some audience members in Cannes kept looking for Pattinson in the film, although he is there from the start, is testimony to his performance. Although he’s on the run most of the time and channeling his inner Steve Buscemi, he’s irresistible in the scenes when he turns on his charm; you get why girls and, in this film, older women swoon over him. The great Jennifer Jason Leigh, in her brief appearance as Connie’s older and spaced-out girlfriend, is delicious. Benny Safdie, a legit actor now with Oppenheimer and Licorice Pizza under his belt, was a newbie then and had to fight for his role. But he plays Nick with the right amount of innocence and brute strength; he’s no pushover despite his disabilities, and you can’t help thinking his confidence stems from his brother’s constant appreciation of him. 

The supporting cast is top-notch. Buddy Duress, as Jay, steals every scene he’s in as the blockheaded yet wily drug peddler determined not to go back to prison. Sadly, his promising acting career is on hold since he’s back in jail for drug dealing. Taliah Webster is a casting coup (more than a thousand girls auditioned for the part). She plays Crystal with the nonchalance of a typical cell phone-addicted teen, not immune from the charms of boys and susceptible to their designs. Barkhad Abdi as the no-nonsense guard, provides comic relief at the most unlikely point in the film. But despite all these stellar performances, my absolute favorite was Peter Verby as Nick’s psychiatrist. He is gentle but firm, and his sole concern is Nick’s welfare. He is exactly who we want Nick to be with until he’s reunited with Connie. We know the brothers’ love for each other will keep them going until they meet and ride into the sunset. 

The black and red hues (including a room lit only with a TV screen), the shaky yet assured camera work, and the slick editing all ensure that “Good Time” is a great time at the movies. 

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