Look What You Made Me Do, Taylor Swift! (write this article, that is)

reputation

Taylor Swift has been living on top of the world. Is she about to come tumbling down?

“You know when they let reality stars do one single?”, “[it] is spectacularly bad”, “a Chris Gaines-level disaster.” That’s how Twitter woke up this morning after last night’s release of Taylor Swift’s new song. “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped at midnight, and the reactions came quick. Usually, I would shrug it off, thinking these types of reactions are just the type of hyperbole you always get from the corner of the internet that inhabits my Twitter feed, but the hate around Taylor and her new song today is deafening. We’ve always rolled our eyes at Taylor and her antics (even people like me, who tend to like her music) but this time is different.

This particular cycle started about a week ago, when Taylor cleared all of her social media presence. Her tweets, her instagrams… they were all gone. Then, she put up a weird video of what looked like a snake. It became apparent pretty quickly that the creature in the video was indeed a snake, and that Taylor was about to release new music. And so, this week she revealed the name and cover of her album -titled Reputation. In the cover (pictured above) a picture of Swift is surrounded by newspaper headlines that consist basically of her name over and over again. Finally, she released her new single.

It’s interesting to track how the reactions changed throughout this very quick release strategy. At first, people were intrigued. Taylor’s erasure of her social media was, after all, a very cryptic and vague message. At that point, anything was possible. Taylor was enjoying an uncharacteristically sympathetic moment. She was going to court claiming that a radio host had groped her. She was clearly setting a nice example, and so people reluctantly embraced her actions. But then the court ruled in Taylor’s favor and the floodgates opened. The takes started coming out the second the album art was revealed. It started with the usual “Taylor Swift isn’t really a feminist” thing, and it escalated from there. By the time the single rolled around, people were talking about how Taylor benefits from the suffering of people of color, and claiming that she set the release of her new album to purposely coincide with the anniversary of the death of Kanye West’s  mom.

How did we get here? Taylor has had a complicated last couple of years: great for album sales, not do great for her public persona. There was the whole incident in which Kim Kardashian released a video showing Taylor agreeing to lyrics in a Kanye West song that she had publicly condemned (look it up), she was in a short-lived but very much talked about romance with actor Tom Hiddleston, and she was the songwriter behind one of ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris’s hit singles for which she didn’t receive any official credit. But all of those are examples of the kind of feud that Taylor’s persona feeds off of. She loves playing the victim, and she’s built almost every album she’s ever released around such narratives. But then the worst thing that could have ever happened became a reality… Donald Trump won the election, and self-proclaimed feminist Taylor Swift hadn’t done anything to stop him.

Before the election, Taylor was just a smart opportunist. She went around selfishly but harmlessly co-opting whatever trend was popular at the moment in order to sell records. She did it with faux-folk back when Mumford and Sons were a thing, she did it with dubstep when Skrillex was a thing, and she did it with eighties pop just in time to be eclipsed by Carly Rae Jepsen’s genius. Because her music was good, we just shrugged it off. But now, a literal cartoon villain sits in the white house and her lack of political commitment doesn’t seem so harmless. There is context (in her country roots, probably) on why she didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton, but that’s not the point. The perception that what she did (or failed to do) was irresponsible is out there, and it is strong. Like most of us, Taylor wasn’t prepared for a Trump presidency. Then the world changed, and she was left behind.

Which brings us to “Look What You Made Me Do.” It’s not a good song. Musically, it feels very much like a late career Britney Spears dance song, which is far from my favorite kind of music. Lyrically, it is giving us more of the same old stuff Taylor always gives us. The chorus, comprised exclusively of the sentence “look what you made me do”, is a typical example of the victim narrative we’ve heard from her before. But given the current circumstances, the fact that the lyrics imply it was other people (the media? Kanye?) that made her do whatever it is that she’s doing doesn’t sit well at all. That’s not the only tone-deaf element in the whole thing. The Reputation album cover implies a “me vs. fake news” sort of approach that smells of catastrophe in the age of Trump. Add to that the embarrassingly cash-grabby magazines with “hand-written lyrics” that will be sold at Target, and it starts to feel like Taylor’s money-hunger might have gone a few steps too far (and that’s saying a lot).

And yet, there are kernels in this song that make me a tiny bit hopeful that Reputation might be the album I was hoping for after all. The bridge of the song, with the refrain “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”, when taken along with the snake imagery that’s all over the promotional materials so far suggest a shift from Taylor’s persona as a victim. So far we’ve assumed the phrase “look what you made me do” is meant to put blame on other people, and with good reason, that’s the kind of thing Taylor would usually go for. But what if the song is a sort of bridge, an introduction to an album that will not be so much about the people who made Taylor do horrible things, but actually about the horrible things that she did.

Because that’s what I want to know. Anything substantial Taylor has to say about the people who supposedly wronged her she’s exhausted already. I want her to move on, and to revel in these supposed dark and nasty things she’s doing. If this is truly an album about shredding off her skin and revealing her true reptilian self, then we might be about the experience some seriously great music. It’s also worth remembering that she tends to release either divisive or mediocre songs as lead singles for her albums (“We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off” were both first singles), so the album could be great for all we know. At this particular moment, though, the future doesn’t look so bright.

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Taylor Swift’s Biggest Songs Ranked by Their Bridges

taylor swift

I was thinking about Taylor Swift today for no particular reason. Just kidding, I think about her all the time. I even wrote a whole play about her. And before you say anything: Yes, I do agree that Ms. Swift’s public persona is as problematic as it is controversial, but let’s all be honest, the woman can write a fucking song. She might be off hiding in suitcases trying to lay low, but you know that her return single once this suspiciously timed period of hibernation is over is going to be a banger.

Now, everyone who knows anything about Taylor Swift knows that the two most delightful elements of her songwriting are her signature T-Drop (TM), and her bridges. For those who don’t know what a bridge is, Wikipedia defines it as a “contrasting section that prepares for the return of the material section”. It’s basically that part near the end of the song in which instead of singing a third (or fourth) verse, the artist chooses to sing something melodically different, before going into the final chorus. At least that’s how Taylor uses it.

So, I was thinking about Taylor Swift’s bridges, and because I’m a silly person I started debating with myself about which were the most iconic bridges in her career. Pitting all of the bridges she’s ever written (that we know of) against each other was a task too herculean for this blog, so I decided to look up the top ten Taylor Swift songs according to the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and rank them based on their bridges. The criteria I used were: thematic value, musical inventiveness, how essential they are to making the song a good choice for karaoke, and what does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge.

So, here we go…

10. Shake It Off

My ex man brought his new girlfriend
She’s like, “oh my God”- I’m just gonna shake
And to the fella over there with the hella good hair
Won’t you come on over baby, we can shake, shake shake… 

Is “Shake It Off” a good song? It’s one of those questions humanity will probably never answer. One minute you go “this is actually a pretty fun song”, and then you’re like “hell no.” There’s a lot of good stuff in the song if you ask me, but the bridge is not one of them. The only thing that keeps Taylor’s attempt at rapping from being a complete disaster is that it is so dorky you are willing to let her believe she’s in on the joke (she’s probably not).
What does Taylor scream at the end of the verse? She doesn’t say anything, she just vocalizes something like “woo-oooh-ooh-aah”
Bonus points: 
The “rapping” is bad, but the vocalizing that closes the bridge is one of the best moments in the song. I once heard a cover of the song that didn’t do the vocalizing and I got so angry I’m still not over it.

9. We Are Never Getting Back Together

I used to think that we were forever ever
And I used to say, “Never say never…”
Uggg… so he calls me up and he’s like, “I still love you, “
And I’m like… “I just… I mean this is exhausting, you know, like,
We are never getting back together. Like, ever”

This is the rare Taylor Swift song that I don’t like at all, and so it pains me to not be able to rank it last. It doesn’t really have to do with anything the song does particularly well, but rather with how horrendous the rap section of “Shake It Off” is. As far this bridge goes, the whole bit where Taylor stops singing to tell us about how her ex called her is the biggest offender.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? 
Nooo!
Bonus Points: The part of the bridge that is actually sung is more melodically pleasing than any of the verses or the chorus, so there’s that. And I guess the “no!” at the end is a nice touch.

8. Today Was a Fairytale

Time slows down whenever you’re around
I can feel my heart
It’s beating in my chest
Did you feel it?
I can’t put this down

I was surprised to learn this song was as successful as it was. This bridge is pretty basic, it’s quite long, and doesn’t live up to the usual Taylor standard (especially since she wrote some of her best bridges in the early stages of her career). At least there’s no rapping or speaking parts, or fake phone calls or none of that nonsense.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? This was before she decided to end all her bridges with screams. She sings the last “down” very softly, but it’s long and it serves basically the same purpose as her later screams.
Bonus points: The little girl in the video is pretty cute, though I’m not sold on the boy.

7. Mine

And I remember that fight, two-thirty a.m.
‘Cause everything was slipping right out of our hands
I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street

I like this song quite a bit, but this feels like a little bit of a half-assed bridge, and especially if you consider some of the gems in that album (like totally amazing bridge in “The Story of Us”). The bridge is very short and uneventful, and it relegates all the heavy lifting to the pre-chorus that follows.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? She doesn’t, all the screaming is reserved for the pre-chorus!
Bonus Points: I think I already overestimated this bridge based on how much I like the song around it.

6. Bad Blood (featuring Kendrick Lamar)

Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes
You say sorry just for show
You live like that, you live with ghosts
…If you love like that… Blood runs cold!

I will never not think that it’s super weird that Kendrick Lamar collaborated on a Taylor Swift song. They seem like two completely different kinds of artists. Kendrick is obviously not putting all of his talent into these verses, so I’ve always preferred the album version. All of that doesn’t really matter because the bridge is the same in both. It’s a pretty solid, if not particularly exciting bridge… until that last part. That last “blood runs cold” sung at the top of her lungs is the kind of thing you can’t help but sing along with.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? “blood runs cold”, duh. 
Bonus Points: 
In the music video, the bridge coincides with the appearance of Mariska Hargitay, and I always find it funny that Taylor decided to put her in the video.

5. I Knew Your Were Trouble

And the saddest fear comes creeping in
That you never loved me or her, or anyone, or anything… 

Taylor’s experiment with dubstep is surprisingly successful given how half-assed her attempts at hip-hop have been. This bridge is by no means the most memorable part of the song (I always struggle to remember it), and it’s very brief, but it has a very different tone to the rest of the song. Everything is suddenly dark and sad for a moment. If we’re going by the Wikipedia definition of trying to do a “contrasting section”, then this one doe sits job.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? Yeeaaaah
Bonus Points: I find the way in which the scream at the end is incorporated into the incoming chorus to be a really nice touch.

4. Wildest Dreams

You see me in hindsight
Tangled up with you all night
Burn it down
Some day when you leave me
I bet these memories hunt you around

Wow, I did not expect this song to rank this high. I suppose Taylor’s better bridges are in the songs that didn’t become huge hits. In any case… this bridge isn’t necessarily masterful, but it is quite essential to its song, and I have to give it credit for that. “Wildest Dreams” is such a slow and dreamy song that the little jolt of energy that comes with this bridge is very much appreciated and keeps the song from becoming too calming.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? The scream is replaced by an echo-y voice that says “follow you around”, which is appropriate given the dreaminess of the song.
Bonus Points: Out of all the songs in 1989, I did not expect this one to become one of the biggest hits in the album.

3. You Belong with Me

Oh, I remember you drivin’ to my house in the middle of the night
I’m the one who makes you laugh
When you know you’re about to cry
And I know your favorite songs
And you tell me about your dreams
I think I know where you belong
I think I know it’s with me

If we’re going by Karaoke rules, you can’t do much better than this bridge. It’s simply the most emotionally satisfying part to sing. It’s particularly appreciated because by the time you get to it you’re probably losing some of your crowd, and you can absolutely get them back by being super dramatic.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? Her “meee” is more of a lament than a scream, but very nice nonetheless.
Bonus points: There’s a change of rhythm, in which the song really kicks down on the ones and the threes (I think?) that really benefits the structure of the song. It makes the softness with which the last chorus starts feel more significant.

2. Blank Space

Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn you

It’s a simple line repeated a bunch of times, but it’s weirdly effective. It’s something she wrote, but doesn’t it feel kind of like something you’ve heard your whole life? Like a saying, or an ancestral piece of wisdom? It’s also the most iconic part of the song. Ok, “baby I’m a nightmare dressed like a day-dream” is probably the most iconic part of the song, but this bridge is definitely the most fun. This was a very serious contender for the number one spot.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t WARN YAAAAAA
Bonus Points: 
If you thought the scream from bridge into chorus in “Bad Blood” was gonna make you sing, well, this one’s even more effective.

1. Love Story

I got tired of waiting
Wondering if you were ever coming around
My faith in you was fading
When I met you on the outskirts of town

And I said

“Romeo save me, I’ve been feeling so alone
I keep waiting for you but you never come
Is this in my head? I don’t know what to think”

He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said

The absolute pinnacle of Taylor Swift’s bridges and there’s simply no question about it. Not only does it precede the most memorable T-Drop (TM) of all time, the emotional punch of the whole song revolves around it. The whole concept of the song hinges on our familiarity with the Romeo and Juliet story and its tragic end. The bridge here is the most melancholy part of the song, dropping the upbeat drums and relying musically on lone guitar strums. It sets us up for the young lovers’ ultimate tragedy, or so we think… It actually sets the stage for the song to build up to the apotheosis of the final chorus.
What does Taylor scream at the end of the bridge? There’s no time for singing, this girl can’t lose her momentum, she’s gotta run right into the next section of the song.
Bonus Points: I absolutely love the way she sings “my faith in you was FAE-ding”.

A Day at the Races: A Review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Logan Lucky’

logan lucky

We all knew Steven Soderbergh’s supposed retirement from filmmaking wouldn’t last forever. Since he announced he was done directing movies in 2013, Soderbergh directed two whole seasons of prestige medical drama The Knick, and after only four years, he’s back directing a theatrical feature. Logan Lucky follows a group of working class West Virginians who hatch a plot to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the day of the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 (a.k.a. the biggest race of the year). It’s a heist movie set in the Appalachian heartland, or as the movie winkingly puts it, “Ocean’s 7/11.” What is so special about this story that made Soderbergh decide to end his retirement. It’s hard to tell. But perhaps Soderbergh’s return has less to do with the movie itself then the way it was made.

In an interview with GQSoderbergh talks about how this movie could open the doors toward a revitalized system designed to produce and distribute mid-budget quality movies. You know, the kind that used to get made by Hollywood studios before they decided to cater to thirteen year old boys and abandoned the idea of producing any movies that didn’t have to do with superheroes or a galaxy far far away. Had it been made in the seventies, eighties, or nineties, Logan Lucky would have been released by a studio. Case in point, Soderbergh released the high-class forefather of his latest movie, Ocean’s Eleven, in 2001. And that movie was financed and released by Warner Bros., a studio that recently announced it was uninterested in producing any non-franchise movies unless they were directed by Clint Eastwood or Christopher Nolan.

Unlike Eastwood and Nolan, most directors are not the exception to the studios’ new rule. Not even Soderbergh, whose retirement was (at least partially) sparked by Hollywood’s resistance toward financing mid-budget movies and fostering directorial talent. He financed Logan Lucky independently, by selling foreign distribution, home video, and streaming rights for the movie in advance and used that money to actually shoot the movie. Now he’s releasing it to 3,000 theaters, and having spent half of what a studio would have spent on a movie of this size, he’s hoping to make a profit. Not only that, but if Logan Lucky is successful, then it might signal the way forward for more movies of its kind to get made. Logan Lucky might well become the brave pioneer that signals the way forward toward a new way of making movies in the United States, but is it any good?

The answer is “yeah, sure”. The thing is, Soderbergh is the kind of filmmaker who can take something mediocre and turn it into something good. Not that the screenplay for Logan Lucky is bad per se, but it didn’t strike me as particularly inspired. Soderbergh’s filmmaking, however, is. He is the kind of director who would thrive under the studio system of classic Hollywood. This is kind of ironic, given the stance he’s taken against contemporary Hollywood studios, but while Soderbergh might be opposed to the idea of directing a bland superhero romp, he would have a blast taking a schlocky script and turning it into an idiosyncratic programmer, elevating scripts the same way classic directors like Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks did when they were working for the big studios.

Soderbergh is a stylish director, but he is also something more. Many directors have style, what Soderbergh has is a deep understanding of the way in which the formal elements of a movie are an essential part of the filmmaking process. Style isn’t superfluous. A movie is its style. This shows in practically all of Soderbergh’s movies. In the way he lights his scenes (playing with color and shadows) or the way he edits (with a particular rhythm that is both relaxed and propulsive). Consider, for example, the way he frames his characters. This might seem obvious, but a movie screen is a frame that works pretty much in the same way as a picture frame. What is and isn’t in the frame is important, because it’s what we can and cannot see.

Many times throughout Logan Lucky, and throughout his career in general, Soderbergh places the camera so that we can see more than one person in the frame. Sometimes, he goes as far as to place the camera so that we can see people’s entire bodies in the frame. This used to be very common back in the day, but is almost unheard of now. It’s hard to see a full body in the frame even in musicals and action sequences. Most movies today just shoot a scene from a bunch of different angles, then put the scene together cutting from one angle to another. This kind of filmmaking usually results in over-edited scenes in which framing and cutting between one shot and the next becomes superfluous. It doesn’t signify anything.

That’s not what Soderbergh does. He is deliberate. Every shot is carefully composed, every cut to a different angle or a different scene signifies something. And just to be clear, it’s not that every cut needs to reveal a deep existential truth, that would be overwhelming, it’s that editing, framing, blocking, and lighting are all essential filmmaking tools that can be used to express things, and so many filmmakers don’t even think of using them. This begs the question: do studio movies have nothing to say because they’re poorly made, or are studio movies poorly made because they have nothing to say? But that’s a whole different conversation.

In fact, we seem to have taken a detour into a conversation that has little to do with the movie at hand. This whole rant about the tools of filmmaking was meant to illustrate the ways in which Logan Lucky feels like the kind of movie that could be made by a studio, and is so much better than what they churn out. It’s not a particularly deep movie. Like I said, I don’t think the screenplay is particularly great, but it’s a very, very well made movie. It is designed to entertain, but that doesn’t mean the filmmaking is put to the side and not taken seriously. This movie doesn’t want to be “serious” or “important”, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t strive to be good.

So let’s talk abut the less good parts of the movie. The screenplay, written by Rebecca Blunt is probably better than I’ve made it seem so far. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything, but it’s not trying to. It’s a solid heist plot not unlike the many solid heist plots that we’ve seen in the past. The twist, of course, is the setting, and that’s where the best and worst parts of the script come into prominence. On the one hand, Appalachia hasn’t been a particularly popular setting for movies in recent years, and when it does appear, Appalachian characters are usually gross criminals or dim-witted hillbillies. And that’s the tricky part, even well-intentioned portrayals of the area can end up reinforcing stereotypes, feeling like Hollywood is looking down at “simpler folk.”

The good news on this front is that Logan Lucky‘s portrayal of working class life is complex. The two main characters in the film, the Logan brothers (played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver), talk with thick southern accents, but are actually quite smart (at least smart enough to pull off a very complicated heist). There are also other characters in the movie with thick southern accents, who are very dumb. This is West Virginia, so everybody has an accent. What the movie is trying to say is that groups of people aren’t monolithic, that differences and complexities exist everywhere. And that’s always a good place to start.

But talking about accents, it’s not really how the characters speak, but what they say that put me off. The script is very much in love with the idea of having all these people speak with thick accents. For most of the time, it feels like Blunt is trying to recreate the kind of ornate dialogue that you would find in a Coen Brothers movie, but that sense of humor is hard to replicate (even the Coens fail at it on occasion), and thus the dialogue feels mostly overwritten. I have spent virtually no time in that area of the country, but the way people talked in this movie felt more like the platonic idea of how people in Appalachia talk rather than how people in Appalachia actually talk.

Like all tools of filmmaking, stylized dialogue can enhance a movie in the right hands. It just doesn’t seem to be working here. Part of it is the casting. Tatum and Driver are both terrific actors, but it’s hard to buy these two Hollywood big-shots as down-on-their-luck West Virginians. The colorful dialogue doesn’t help. They sound like sketch comedians trying to put on a Southern accent. Not to mention Daniel Craig, who tries his best to disappear into the role, but can’t shake off his stardom. He’s freaking James Bond. You can’t go much further away from Appalachia than James Bond. Then there’s Seth McFarland who plays a completely extraneous British character for some reason, but the less said about him the better.

Seeing big movie stars pull off a heist worked perfectly in Ocean’s Eleven because those characters fancied themselves cool movie stars (Julia Roberts even attempts plays herself in the sequel), and given the circumstances, I think an attempt at a little bit more authenticity would have worked better for Logan Lucky. Case in point, the best performances in the movie belong to Riley Keough, who is wonderful as the quiet but fierce Logan sister, and Dwight Yoakam, who is very funny as a foolish prison warden. Keough is the granddaughter of Elvis (who is pretty much the most famous hillbilly that ever lived), Yoakam is a country musician. They feel right at home.

Yet even when the performances don’t feel quite as natural as one would want, there is a lot of good stuff and care in the way these big actors play their characters. Driver, for example; while he struggles to pull off the comedic dialogue, he invests his character with a stoic melancholy that place him right in the sweet-spot between heartfelt and cartoonish. That sort of balance extends to the rest of the movie, which is trying to subvert stereotypes about poor white people by being as matter-of-fact in its depictions as possible. The movie features characters who play horseshoes using toilet seats, and a main character takes part in a child’s beauty pageant. These things are just part of life.

Steven Soderbergh seems to have entered a fascinating, if complicated, phase of his career as far as the politics of his movies are concerned. He seems to be interested in positive and empathic visions of America. He didn’t direct, but he did shoot, edit, and produce Magic Mike XXLwhich is both one of the best movies of this decade and one of the most beautifully utopic films ever made. In Logan Lucky he seems to attempt something similar. He presents characters who have fallen in hard times (Tatum’s character loses his job due to a “pre-existing condition”), he is honest about their struggles, but he feels infinite warmth and empathy toward them.

Channing Tatum seems to be fit right at the center of this quest, playing characters who embody true kindness and selflessness. It’s hard to say this about a movie in which the heroes are trying to pull off a massive robbery, but the motives of the characters aren’t strictly selfish. And the way Tatum’s character behaves after they pull off the job (and that’s not a spoiler because of course they pull it off) is quite generous. It’s still contradictory, but weirdly humane. Soderbergh seems to be at a very humanistic place in his career. Even if the utopic visions of this movie aren’t quite as clear and focused as we’d wish them to be, it might be worth taking a peek into Soderbergh’s mind. We are living in dark and scary times, any suggestion of how to achieve kindness and humanity in America might help.

A Privileged Man: A Review of the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Good Time’

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Good Time is such a propulsive, lean, and tense movie it’s easy to imagine some dismissing it as an example of style over substance filmmaking. The plot unfolds over night, and Robert Pattinson stars a lowlife who makes a series of questionable decisions while trying to help his mentally challenged brother. The movie is a thrill ride. Hand-held cameras keep us close to the characters’ faces, rapid fire editing keeps the plot moving forward, and through upbeat electronic music, the soundtrack does the same. But pay attention to the details, and you’ll find this is a much more thoughtful movie than it initially appears. Pattinson’s character isn’t just a guy who’s trying to get out of trouble. He is imbued with a kind of white male privilege that motivates even a lower class hoodlum from Queens to stomp over and ruin the lives of whoever crosses his path in order to get what he wants. It’s this undercurrent of thematic heft, the thoughtful observation of who this character is, and the attention to detail that elevate the shiny surface and make this one of the best movies of the year.

Not that the shiny surface needed much elevation per se. It’s a testament to the filmmaking talent of directors Josh and Benny Safdie that a thematically hollow but similarly propulsive version of this movie could still be considered a triumph. But then again, the Safdies are not that kind of filmmakers. They seem to be committed to making every moment of run time count. The movie is incredibly lean and heavily detailed at the same time. Part of how this is achieved is by getting rid of any aspect of the story that could be expendable, and focusing on the immediacy of the main character’s journey. In an interview at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the brothers (and co-writer Ronald Bronstein) revealed that they had crafted a very extensive backstory, sketching what had happened to the characters from the time they were children up to moment before the movie begins. None of that backstory is in the movie.

This is a good thing. Once you hear the filmmakers give background on the relationship between Connie Nikas (Pattinson’s character) and his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), you understand certain details of how exactly Connie comes to the point where he is willing to do all the desperate things he does throughout the movie. But we don’t need it. Knowing that backstory supplies superficial information, what we see on screen is a visceral and truthful relationship. A scene in which Connie sits down and opens up about why he’s doing what he’s doing would be beside the point. We don’t need to hear about his commitment and desperation, we see it all on screen. In the way the Safdies stick to his merciless point of view, and in Pattinson, who delivers a career-best performance in the role.

It is only appropriate, then, to describe Good Time as a well observed movie. We tend to refer to slow character studies and mood pieces as “well observed”, one of the achievements of this movie is how it opens up glimpses into its characters and their world while keeping the plot moving forward at full speed. This is a movie that knows what it’s talking about. The Safdies are native New Yorkers, and nobody would be fooled in believing otherwise after watching this movie. This is the kind of New York movie we get very seldom. It is not set in Manhattan high-rises or Brooklyn brownstones. This story sticks close to the ground, running through the streets of the outer boroughs (mostly Queens). It’s trafficking in the kind of realism you can’t just stumble upon. It’s such a New York movie, a Cellino and Barnes commercial makes an appearance.

This extends to the characters. A lot of them just come in and out of the movie, but the Safdies make sure we know these people have real lives outside the plot. This isn’t achieved through exposition, but through action. How a character says a line, how they move, even details about where they live speak volumes. And at the center of the movie, of course, exists the one character who pierces right through all these characters’ lives. Connie’s increasingly poor decisions start with a bank robbery. To pull this robbery off, he puts on a rubber mask that makes him look like a distorted black man. A telling disguise that reveals volumes about how the character relates to his own identity.

Connie Nikas is an able-bodied straight white man. This means that despite belonging at the bottom of the economic barrel and looking like a sleazebag, he can still access a certain amount of privilege that has trickled down from the top just because of who he is. Most of the characters he encounters can’t access this privilege. Some of them are black, some of them are old, some are women. His brother, as said before, is mentally challenged. The most honest thing about the movie’s treatment of Connie’s situation, however, is that Connie is entirely willing to use whatever ounce of privilege he has left in order to get what he wants. Even if it means destroying other people’s lives.

It is unclear how aware Connie is of the privilege that allows him to repeatedly avoid his own downfall. There is no denying, however, that his actions are often horrifyingly selfish. At one point he impersonates a security guard, and despite presenting himself as the only witness of a particularly fishy situation, he gets away with it. The cops take his word as face value. Do they believe him because he’s white? There is a slight level of ambiguity, but it’s telling that the only characters who are detained during that scene are black. In more than one occasion he hustles his way into black people’s homes, eating their food, drinking their alcohol, and making use of whatever item he needs in the moment. It’s a particularly masculine kind of privilege. He doesn’t seem to have any empathy or respect for the people around him. He’s come to believe he can get whatever he wants, he just needs to find a way to get it.

It wouldn’t be difficult to make a meta-filmic read of the film in which Connie fancies himself the protagonist of his own movie. His initial plan to rob a bank is, after all, the kind of solution that is far more prevalent in movies than in real life. He also has his brother as a moral justification. He’s not doing this all for himself. Just like Pacino robbed the bank for his lover in Dog Day Afternoon, so he seems to be doing it all for his brothers. Connie’s idea of what is good for his brother is obviously warped. He might be smart enough to selfishly get out of trouble, but he isn’t thoughtful. He is the kind of character that in the past has been portrayed in either too sympathetic or too villainous fashion. Rarely does the portrayal fall in such a perfectly amoral place.

Whether Connie finds redemption, or whether he deserves it, is one of the questions that linger after the movie is over. After all, a working class bum such as him can only push his luck so far. The movie ends on a weirdly tender note, that shows a kind of sentimentality that was absent for most of the movie. It seemed out of place initially, but on further reflection, opens up a series of questions about these brothers, their actions, and their humanity. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling the movie, but it’s telling that we never get to see Connie’s ultimate sacrifice, leaving his actions ambiguous. It’s also telling to think of where we last see his brother, what he’s doing, and who surrounds him. That conversation might have to wait for a later time. For now, I don’t have much else to say, other than that Good Time is one hell of a movie.