Martin Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’ is arguably the pinnacle of a certain subgenre of “bad night” thrillers that have the ability to create anxious tension like few others. The Safdie brothers’ ‘Good Time’ delivers its nerve-rattling absurdity with enough style, humor and grit to be worthy of the comparison. The film can feel a bit scattershot, but that’s part of this particular thread of genre flick.
Though far from perfect, the movie at least lives up to its title. This is a giddy little rush that confirms the Safdies as a searing new filmmaking voice and proves that Robert Pattinson can be a pretty good actor when given the chance.
‘Good Time’ is a tale of two brothers. Nick Nikas (played by co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie) is a mentally disabled young man perpetually on the verge of institutionalization. Connie (Robert Pattinson) is a manic wannabe con-man who at least thinks he’s doing good. The film opens with Connie taking his brother out of a psychiatric evaluation for a robbery. Unsurprisingly, it goes poorly and Nick ends up getting arrested. From there, the story unspools over a single horrible night as Connie desperately attempts to get his brother bailed or broken out of jail. That involves a trip to visit his wealthy and childlike girlfriend of sorts (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a visit from a stressed-out fairground security guard (Barkhad Abdi from ‘Captain Phillips’), and more than a few New York lowlifes in an odyssey to do a good act in all the wrong ways and with all the worst consequences.
If nothing else, ‘Good Time’ is an achievement of style and tempo. From the moment Connie pulls his brother out of the opening scene, the film races with feverish intensity. Every scene finds a way to go from bad to worse to ridiculous without ever stretching credibility too hard. The Safdies’ cameras shake and spin around every scene with woozy energy, while their editing toys with time and pumps with a jittery rhythm. The film keeps viewers forever off-balance and anxious, waiting for the next catastrophe to strike even though it will inevitably come from an unexpected source. Despite all the showoff filmmaking and carefully constructed set-pieces, the Safdies strike an endearingly realist tone. Their film might be a loopy adrenaline rush, but it’s always credibly insane.
So much of that comes to the actors, who embody their roles brilliantly. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spoiled/regressed middle-aged woman-as-snarky-teen is such a fascinatingly funny and oddly emotional mess that she’s missed once the narrative races past her. Newcomer Buddy Duress plays a wiseass thug with snotty stupidity that’s endearingly unpredictable. Barkhad Abdi gets some scenes too good to spoil. Co-writer/director Benny Safdie establishes himself as a legitimate triple threat by delivering a heartbreaking portrayal of mental illness that doesn’t pander despite minimal screen time. Elsewhere, unfamiliar faces add to the docu-realism while still amping up their performance to fit the style of the piece.
It all feels nightmarishly believable, and at the center of it all is Robert Pattinson with a thick New Yawk accent, sunken eyes, bad facial hair, and a battered soul a million miles away from his sullen vampire bullshit. He legitimately disappears into the role, and even if he occasionally overacts through the insanity, it fits into the stylized funhouse version of the New York that the Safdies created as their playground. His magazine selling face may pull viewers out of the reality at times, but the movie is so insane that would frequently happen anyway. The Safdies demand a certain suspension of disbelief to sell this story, and accepting a ‘Twilight’ posterboy as a downtrodden thug is a fair enough place to start.
Where ‘Good Time’ lags can often be in the ‘Looney Tunes’ excesses of the stylistic exercise. While many of the big risks and tricks pay off, some fall flat and the movie can feel a little too cartoonish for its genre. Likewise, all of the cinematic dick-swinging from the Safdies can be a bit much. There are only so many scenes bathed in red light you can watch before feeling like a Scorsese influence is stretching into a ripoff, and only so many outlandish plot twists a film striving for grit can withstand. At times, the Safdies go too far, but that’s kind of a requirement with these sorts of bad night thrillers. They have to be too absurd, they have to be too darkly funny, they have to be too violent, they have to be much too much. It’s all about sticking the landing, and somehow Benny and Josh Safdie end in a place that’s moving and meaningful behind all the madness.
‘Good Time’ is ultimately just a fun little lark from crime movie nuts, but it’s executed with such confidence, style and flair that the filmmakers instantly establish themselves as directors to keep tabs on. These brothers might do big things one day. If they do, ‘Good Time’ will be a flick to look back on to see the seeds sown for a bright future.