Attention aux spoilers! / Contains spoilers!
Scans thanks to Sally
From Cinema Scope:
(...) it was left to the Safdies to save Cannes—which, indeed, they did, with a film that can be described as total cinem, in another, more traditional meaning of the term. And unlikely saviours they were, as no doubt their film, which Variety reviewed as “Robert Pattinson in Good Time,” would not have been selected for Competition save for the presence of their male lead. Spoilers follow.
A kind of Dionysian New York Gesamtkunstwerk, Good Time is immersion without identification, as the Safdies place viewers in the backseat for a long night’s ride that lets us observe freedom without participating in it and witness a series of choices that seem like good ideas at the time which progressively lead the protagonist ever deeper into a sinkhole of his own creation. As opposed to nearly every other Competition effort, Good Time is a taut work bereft of waste, one in which every element—screenplay (by Josh Safdie and Ronnie Bronstein), performances (from the entire cast), editing (by Benny Safdie and Bronstein), glorious widescreen, frequently low-light photography (by Sean Price Williams, his first 35mm effort), and, most of all, the electro-Wagnerian soundtrack (by Oneohtrix Point Never)—has clearly been obsessed over, and which often provides little room for the viewer to breathe as it leaps propulsively from essential scene to essential scene in the throbbing vein of action cinema. (The relentless Tangerine Dream-like score, too, places the film more in the realm of William Friedkin than Abel Ferrara.)
That the Safdies are operating on a grander scale here than in their previous work is apparent from the opening helicopter shot, which swoops over Manhattan and almost enters, pace Psycho (1960), an office building, where Nick Nikas (a bulked-up Benny Safdie), framed in close-up, is engaged in a session with a kindly psychiatrist. Clad in a puffy jacket that frames his neck like a boxer sitting in his corner in between rounds, Nick is mentally disabled, and resists his interrogator’s word-association games, which are aimed at revealing the source of his antagonistic feelings towards his grandmother; a single tear runs down his cheek as he recalls that water and salt, in his mind, signifies the beach. At a certain point, Nick’s brother Connie (Pattinson) bursts in and removes him from the office, evincing a strong brotherly affection—as Connie says, it’s the two of them against the world. One jump cut later, they are robbing a bank. (The editing bridging scene to scene throughout the film is particularly spectacular.)
I’ll spare you the details, but Connie has actually concocted a pretty good plan for the hold-up, with one screw-up: he doesn’t account for the bag of cash containing an exploding paint bomb. As the screen fills with red (a colour that makes a more than periodic reappearance), the time has come for improvisation: looking like extras from, well, La chinoise, the brothers duck into a Domino’s, clean up, and stash the money in the ceiling, while Connie comes up with an excuse for their paint-splattered state (Nick was hit in the head by a can of paint from a construction site). Connie’s improvisatory abilities are tested even more severely after Nick crashes through a glass window while running from the cops, is taken to Riker’s, and is almost immediately sprayed with tear gas, then pummelled to a bloody pulp when he won’t relinquish control of the TV remote.
Most of the remaining running time is concerned with Connie steamrolling through Queens trying to get his brother out of jail and dealing with all sorts of mishegoss, because he justly realizes Nick won’t last long in there. First step is to try and raise bail money from his vacation-obsessed girl Corey (an excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh, back in her comfort zone of psychological instability) by bullshitting her that Nick was abused by his therapist; then, once the yarmulke-wearing bail bondsman finds out that Nick has been moved to Elmhurst Hospital, Connie breaks him out of the sick ward and ends up hiding out with an elderly black couple and their self-sufficient 16-year-old granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster).
But what exactly is Connie’s endgame? There are innumerable ways that all of this can go wrong, and probably only one way that each step can go right—and to Connie’s credit, he always manages to devise a clever solution that puts him one step ahead, before taking another step backwards. That step becomes a giant leap when it’s revealed that he’s accidentally sprung Ray (Buddy Duress, who, like all the cast members, steals a scene or two), a common criminal on parole with a general physical likeness to Nick and a wild backstory of his own involving a Sprite bottle filled with acid. Taking off on a detour to—naturally—Long Island’s Adventureland (which provides another occasion for some stunning black-light cinematography, awash in reds and blues, the colours of police siren lights), Ray and Connie form a partnership of convenience which means a break can happen at any time (which is also why Connie abandons Crystal when it suits him).
Through all of this, Connie never once realizes his inability to be in full control of his situation and never thinks through the ramifications of his decisions, partly because there’s no time to make plans: he’s operating on survival instinct and adrenaline rather than intellect, or even emotion. (Of the numerous improvs Connie employs to get out of a jam, none is finer than the moment when, while watching the news with Crystal in a rare moment of down time, a report of their escape comes on; to avoid being recognized, he starts making out with the girl.) As ably realized by Pattinson, Connie (short for “confidence man”) is a classic Safdie creation, a charismatic, pushy, beady-eyed hustler with a great deal of street smarts who thinks he’s savvier than everyone else, but isn’t. His tragic flaw is that, in one case only, he is unable to put himself first: he loves his brother too much. And it’s here where Nick’s disability, far from being exploitative, is crucial to the film’s narrative; it in part excuses Connie’s unwavering dedication and refusal to go rogue.
There is only one way that Good Time can end: as street smarts can only get you so far, and as there is no believable way that Connie can manage to escape, the best he can do is make it out alive. As the cops zero in on him, the Safdies’ camera shoots the scene from above, depicting Connie as a rat trapped in a Sartrean maze with no exit. (Ray’s fate is worse: despite his brilliant decision to waterboard the amusement park’s security guard [Barkhad Abdi] with acid to prevent him from talking—these guys really are bottom-of-the-barrel MacGyvers—he’s not as adept at improvising, especially when drunk.) By the end, it’s clear that what we have been witnessing is Connie’s subconscious attempt to extend his last day of freedom, to live the good time—his time off for “good behaviour”—moment to moment. A coda makes it clear that Connie has sacrificed himself for Nick, who we see back in the psych clinic, still out of step with the world. Cementing its place in the New York-by-night canon, Good Time is a film that feels familiar, but is done in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. At a Cannes that so insistently paid lip service to rewriting the rules of the game of cinema, the Safdies won by digging deep into the art form’s basic elements.