Good Time is a dour, nihilistic slog. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie follow an inventive bank robber on an all-night crime spree, with all the curiosity of a Bumfights video. Their style is unique, with harsh colors and unflattering close-ups. Interiors and production values are incidental, since they plunge into the inner lives of characters who are pure id. No one in this film could tell you anything about their futures, or what matters in their lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and there are indeed great films about wild, impulsive criminals. The difference is that those aspire for significance, instead of provocation for its own sake.
In a transparent effort to shed his Twilight persona, Robert Pattinson plays Connie, an unkempt young man whose baggy clothes probably smell awful. He robs a bank with his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), and nearly escapes, except a dye pack explodes in the getaway car. The cops arrive, chasing the brothers, but only Connie manages evade arrest. Nick is mentally ill, so Connie is desperate to scrounge up some bail money before Nick accidentally pisses off the wrong guy in jail. Good Time becomes an odyssey of incompetence, with Connie getting himself into trouble and meeting several accomplices by accident. These accomplices include a middle aged drunk (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and an underage girl (Taliah Webster).
Connie’s principal trait is that he is an amoral monster. He thinks nothing about harming anyone in his way, or exploiting those who are too old/young to know better. The first section of the film feigns some interest in fraternal love between Connie and Nick, except this is never explored beyond a perfunctory scene of mutual need. Instead, we are left with unanswered questions, like why did Connie bring Nick to the bank robbery? Why do they need money so desperately? Good Time is deliberately unfinished, with the implication that character development are beneath the Safdies. Connie’s secondary trait is that he’s a fucking dumbass. How dumb is he? He springs the wrong guy from a hospital, thinking it’s Nick, and this recent parolee (Buddy Duress) comes up with a halfway decent heist, except it’s based off of a dimly-recalled acid trip.
The Safdies, along with co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein, must have thought this material is a hoot. There is no attempt to engage with it, beyond the raw incident of what Connie improvises next. The film never quite comments on Connie’s inherent privilege; as a handsome young white man, he gets the benefit the doubt more than anyone in a similar situation ever would. A better, more curious film would about Connie’s status, instead of how it merely enables him. This is made painfully clear late in the film, when Connie mercilessly beats a hapless security guard (Barkhad Abdi). You may recognize that name since Abdi played the lead pirate in Captain Phillips. He received an Academy Award nomination for that role, and there was some discussion about whether he could land any further gigs. Here is another role, unfortunately, with significantly less depth and agency than Abdi’s breakthrough. The Safdies probably think they’re doing him a favor.
In formal terms, Good Times is aggressive and hostile. The Safdies are pitiless, putting their camera in a room so we can rarely make sense of the space in which Connie finds himself. There are few establishing shots, only close-ups of oversaturated, sickly faces. This style is certainly moody, with lots of neon light and pounding electronic music from experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never. “Immersive” is not the right word, since I found myself constantly counting down the minutes until it would end. The Safdies’ only take pity during shots of cars speeding through New York’s many highways; these sequences exist primarily to show off their access to a modestly higher budget. Pattinson is the would-be anchor for all these amoral hijinks. His American accent is convincing, and while Connie has all the misanthropy of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, he has none of the charisma.
A bad film like Good Time can only be made by good filmmakers. In fact, I greatly admired their last film Heaven Knows What, ranking it among the year’s best. The difference between the two is that Heaven Knows What uses the style toward a greater purpose: the unflattering aesthetic makes sense when we’re dealing with drug addicts, who think of nothing beyond the next fix. In Good Time, there is a dearth of imagination – the Safdies attempt to shoehorn the style into the premise, when the reverse would be a more satisfying, albeit difficult choice. This film is a bad time, all the way to its heartless core, and its only dubious “value” is the shared embarrassment you’ll feel for the actors involved.